Bhubaneswar: India trounced Asian Games champion Japan 7-2 to setup a title clash with South Africa who overpowered the USA 2-1 in the FIH hockey Series Finals here on Friday.
Hosts India and South Africa will now battle it out for one of the first two spots of the this tournament which give access to the FIH Olympic qualifiers scheduled in October-November this year.
This all-Asian encounter started at a high tempo and it took only 90 seconds for Japan to open the scoring after a great pass from Kenta Tanaka was converted into a goal by Kenji Kitazato. India immediately put pressure on Japan’s goal in an attempt to get a quick equaliser.
After a great save from Yusuke Takano following a shot from Nilakanta Sharma and a missed opportunity by Gursahibjit Singh, the home team levelled the score with a penalty corner from Harmanpreet Singh, who celebrated his 100th cap in the best possible way.
But Japan were determined to give a hard time to the 5th ranked team in the world. First, Kenta Tanaka, at the conclusion of one of his numerous fast runs, put the Indian defence under pressure. Then, in the 20th minute of the game, Kota Watanabe managed to hit the ball into the goal, making it 2-2.
But once again, India reacted with no delay. First Ramandeep Singh from a penalty corner and then Hardik Singh doubled their team’s tally within two minutes (4-2).
In the second half, India won numerous penalty corners and it was Ramandeep Singh – later elected Man of the Match – who converted, scoring his second goal of the night. He was soon copied by his teammate Gursahibjit Singh, increasing the score to 6-2 at the end of the third quarter.
The final quarter gave the opportunity to India’s youngest player Vivek Prasad to put his name on the scoresheet, much to the delight of the home crowd. Despite several penalty corners, Japan could not find the net in this second half.
Captain Manpreet Singh said after the win “Japan played very well. They were attacking and did not give us easy chances in the first two quarters. But after that our players played very well, they got good chances and we converted penalty corners. We’re really happy because we’re qualified for the Final and for the FIH Olympic qualifiers. Tomorrow is a really important game for us because South Africa is doing very well. We hope we’ll play as we played today.”
Earlier in a match between the USA and South Africa the first opportunity was created by the African champions with Austin Smith’s drag-flick from a penalty corner heading just centimetres wide of the goalposts.
South Africa was enjoying most of the ball possession but, as previously showcased in this tournament, USA was defending very well, leaving very little space for their opponents to capitalise upon.
South Africa had a further very good opportunity from a deflected ball after another penalty corner, but USA goalkeeper Jonathan Klages cleared it.
On a counter-attack, the USA got a penalty-corner which Aki Kaeppeler converted for the first goal of this semi-final, five seconds before the end of the first quarter. The next fifteen minutes did not provide many scoring chances. A good attempt from Keenan Horne went slightly off target. At half-time, the USA were still leading 1-0.
The match continued in the same pattern at the start of the second half. South Africa had to look for the equaliser but they struggled to create opportunities as USA’s defensive organisation was very solid. Additionally, the American side were quick to go on the attack whenever they turned over possession. However, Garreth Ewing’s team found the net towards the end of the third quarter when a penalty corner was fired home by the experienced Austin Smith.
South Africa came very close to taking the lead following two consecutive penalty corners right at the start of the final quarter but Jonathan Klages was in fine form and saved well. The USA reacted quickly with Kei Kaeppeler crossing the ball for Alberto Montilla who could not quite get into position to deflect it into the goal. The intensity of the match was increasing, with the ball moving quickly from one half to the other. With just 30 seconds left to play, the fate of this match was decided: following a shot from Nqobile Ntuli, South Africa’s Nicholas Spooner was in the right place to deflect the ball past the goal-line and give his team a place in the Final.
South Africa’s Nicholas Spooner: “0-1 behind, then coming back to score and then the 2-1 was 30 seconds to play. It’s incredible. Great performance from the team. We’re fortunate enough to get a win. I was in the right place at the right time and was lucky enough to hit the ball over the line at the end of the day.”
USA’s Head Coach Rutger Wiese: “Congratulations to South Africa. What two battles we fought with them this week! Overall, I think our first four games were pretty good.”