Five-star India earn elusive gold, ticket to Paris
Harmanpreet and Co reinforced their superiority in Asia, winning every game in Hangzhou comprehensively, including the final against defending champions Japan
As India skipper Harmanpreet Singh knelt down to kiss the blue turf of the Gongshu Canal Sports Park Stadium, Manpreet Singh and PR Sreejesh – the only two members of the gold medal-winning team at Incheon 2014 in the current squad – rushed to hug each other. Even the poker-faced chief coach Craig Fulton couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear.
The scenes indicated just one thing – the Indian men’s hockey team had hammered Japan 5-1 in the final to clinch the Asian Games gold on Friday. This is only the fourth time that India have won the top prize at the continental showpiece after Bangkok 1966, Bangkok 1998 and Incheon 2014.
The gold also meant that the Harmanpreet-led squad had earned the all-important ticket for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The circle that commenced in late April when chief coach Fulton joined the setup following the departure of Graham Reid is complete with the South African realising his first target on Friday by becoming the No.1 team in Asia.
Harmanpreet and Co had already half-achieved that last month in Chennai when they won the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT). They further reinforced their superiority in Asia, winning every game in Hangzhou comprehensively, including the final against defending champions Japan to extend their unbeaten streak to an incredible 17 matches. Skipper Harmanpreet (32nd, 59th) scored a brace while Manpreet (25th), Amit Rohidas (36th) and Abhishek (48th) scored one each. Seren Tanaka (51st) scored a consolation goal for Japan.
“We wanted to be the No.1 team in Asia, and we just proved that. What was really important was to have consistency. To win two tournaments back-to-back is not easy. We did well in ACT and wanted to back it up and qualify for Paris. We're playing a nice brand of hockey,” said Fulton.
“That (qualifying for Paris) was the main objective. We wanted to do that here and we did that. We can perform under pressure and the new philosophy of improving the defence is slowly starting to come to fruition. And we are still scoring goals at the same time.”
The Akira Takahashi-coached Japanese side played structured and organised hockey at the start, defending deep and trying to spark a counterattack when they found an opportunity. India were cautious knowing that the holders have the ability to spring a surprise when needed, having done so in the past.
But India kept pressing, largely half-field and full when needed. The particular use of aerial balls proved beneficial many a time – later resulting in goals – with Harmanpreet and vice-captain Hardik Singh scooping the ball past the Japanese defence, landing in front of forwards Mandeep Singh or Abhishek with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Following 25 minutes of a mix of cagey as well as free-flowing hockey largely in the midfield, India were finally able to break the deadlock thanks to a Manpreet stunner. Using short passes, the Indians moved into the Japanese striking circle with Abhishek hitting towards the goal only to be deflected by keeper Takumi Kitagawa. The rebound went to Manpreet, who switched his stick to avoid two defenders and struck a brilliant reverse stick goal from the top of the circle.
The celebrations were almost doused when Japan all but equalised but for Sreejesh, who whacked away the ball with his left leg to help India take a 1-0 lead into half-time.
Having wasted both their penalty corner (PC) chances in the first half, the world No.3 outfit made it 2-0 when Harmanpreet finally sounded the board via a PC. India didn’t have to wait long for a third goal as four minutes later Rohidas made up for the miss in the first half when he struck via another PC.
By the third quarter, India had drastically improved their ball possession, increased their speed and attacks to make more in-roads into the Japanese defence. Fulton made smart use of rolling substitution, regularly changing his players, especially forwards, so that they remained fresh to mount their attacks.
By the fourth quarter, the result was imminent as the ‘Samurais’ shoulders began to drop. The Olympic bronze medallists made full use of the chance as Abhishek made it 4-0 with his ninth goal of the tournament, hammering the ball into the far corner.
All but assured of the victory, India were caught napping when a Japanese counterattack earned a PC with Tanaka successful in getting Japan off the mark.
But it didn’t take India long to restore the four-goal gap when Harmanpreet’s grounded flick found the back of the goal for India’s 5th and the defender’s 13th of the tournament.
"The main thing is we get a year to prepare for the Olympics, that’s the best part. Our journey is going in the right direction. We need to keep on continuing it,” said Sreejesh.
For their dominant performance, Hockey India (HI) announced a prize of Rs.5 lakh for each player and Rs.2.5 lakh for each member of the support staff.