India defeated Asian Games gold medallist Japan 2-0 to start their campaign at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament on a winning note in Ipoh on Saturday.
Varun Kumar converted a penalty corner in the 24th minute to hand India the lead before Simranjeet Singh scored a diving field goal after skipper Manpreet Singh set it up with a brilliant pass to secure full three points for the five-time champions.
After getting off to a goalless first quarter, India seemed to shake of the opening-match jitters to take control of the proceedings. With good ball possession, they sought the right opportunity to make an early breakthrough.
India’s midfield, with tactical play by seniors Manpreet Singh and Kothajit Singh, saw them make forays into the striking circle with clever-passes. The strikers, though, couldn’t find the right connection, missing field-goal opportunity by inches.
With four minutes remaining for the second hooter, a good pass by Sumit Kumar to Mandeep Singh – who flicked it towards the post – missed the net by a margin. However, an alert defence saw India’s Surender Kumar and Birender Lakra impress time-and-again with effective tackles to disengage Japanese counter attacks.
The third quarter saw Japan make amends to a below-par start as they won their first PC in the 33rd minute. But experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh did well to save and clear the ball ensuring India remained in the lead.
The following minutes saw both India and Japan create scoring opportunities but in vain. With two minutes remaining for the third hooter, Japanese striker Kenji Kitazato took a brave shot on goal but missed the post by a big margin. Off a rebound, Kazuma Murata struck the ball towards the post but it was off target.
India hunted for a second goal with good precision and structured game play. The attack remained resilient as they created a PC within minutes of the fourth quarter. This time, though, Varun missed the mark, allowing Japan to launch a quick counter attack.
Birendra Lakra was quick to respond and make a good steal. In the dying minutes, Japan made desperate attempts for an opening but India stayed cautious. Japan tried different ways to dislodge India, used full-press to gain ball-possession but did not succeed.
They removed their goalkeeper to add an extra man in the 55th minute but the tactic backfired with India making use of the opportunity. A diving effort by Simranjeet Singh put India ahead 2-0. With just two minutes remaining, Japan created a PC but the attempt was well-defended by Surender Kumar and backed by goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, who replaced Sreejesh after half-time.
India’s Varun Kumar was adjudged the Player of the Match as India registered a winning start to the tournament.
India will play Korea in their next league game on Sunday before taking on hosts Malaysia [March 26], Canada [March 27] and Poland [March 29]. The top two teams from the round robin league stage will play in the final on March 30.