Ipoh (Malaysia), May 3 (IANS) Mandeep Singh struck a hat-trick as India staged a strong comeback to beat Japan 4-3 in a league match of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here on Wednesday.
Mandeep Singh struck in the 45th, 51st and 58th minutes after defender Rupinder Pal Singh (sixth minute) had powered home a penalty corner to hand an early lead to India.
Japan fought back through Kazuma Murata (10th minute), Heita Yoshihara (43rd minute) and Genki Mitani (45th minute).
Mandeep thus became the third player to score a hat-trick in the tournament after the Australian pair of Trent Mitton and Tom Craig.
India now have seven points from four matches. They had started their campaign with a 2-2 draw with title contenders Britain in the opening match of the tournament.
They had then defeated New Zealand 3-1 before going down by a similar margin to favourites Australia on Tuesday.
India will now take on hosts Malaysia in their last match of the league stage on Friday.
It was a fast paced match which saw an aggressive India enjoy the bigger share of ball possession while Japan relied on speedy counter-attacks.
To their credit, the spirited Japanese took the lead twice but the Indians did well to stage comebacks on both occasions.
Despite being the higher rated team, the Indians struggled to contain their opponents and their defence was repeatedly caught on the wrong foot by the fast counter-attacks by the Japanese.
Indian coach Roelant Oltmans will also be worried by the poor penalty corner conversion rate. The Indians got five penalty corners and barring the first one, the rest were wasted.
There was plenty of action in the first 15 minutes with India putting Japan on the backfoot by constantly attacking them and making space in the penalty circle.
It was Rupinder who showed innovative dribbling skills to penetrate the circle and take a shot at the goal in the initial minutes of the first quarter but he was slightly off target with the shot going wide.
But he made up almost immediately when Talwinder Singh — who was playing his 50th international match — won India their first penalty corner. Rupinder improvised on the injunction by Sardar Singh to fire the ball into the top left of the goal giving Japan goalkeeper Suguro Shimmoto little chance to react.
But Japan were quick to hit back when Masaki Ohashi set up their first goal with a square pass to Murata who deflected the ball past Indian custodian Akash Chikte.
India had an opportunity to regain the lead when they won a penalty corner in the dying minutes of the first quarter. But Harmanpreet Singh’s flick rebounded off a Japan defender. Though Affan Yousuf found the rebound and took a shot on goal, his attempt went wide.
India dominated ball possession to keep the pressure on Japan in the second quarter. Though they won a penalty corner in the 26th minute, Rupinder’s flick went wide.
India were quick to get off the block in the third quarter. Rupinder did well to assist forward S.V. Sunil who made space in the circle to attempt a field goal. But the Japanese defenders made the task tough for the experienced Sunil who couldn’t make a strong enough connect to the ball.
Heita Yoshihara was the hero of the third quarter for Japan as he came up with a speedy dribble to carry the ball from the half way line and beat Indian defender Gurinder Singh to score a sensational goal at the far post to give Japan a 2-1 lead.
But India equalised when Mandeep claimed a dramatic goal when he touched the ball assisted by Harmanpreet Singh to deflect it into the post.
Japan reclaimed the lead in the final minute of the third quarter when they again beat the Indian defenders and Mitani found the target.
India won a crucial penalty corner in the 46th minute, but Japan goalkeeper Suguro Shimmoto did well to pad away a fiercely struck dragflick by Rupinder.
However, the Indians held their nerve, came up with good counter attacking skills and fought back to level terms for the second time in the match when Mandeep scored his second goal with a perfect deflection of Talwinder’s assist from the baseline.
Mandeep won a penalty corner soon after Sardar Singh showcased brilliant dribbling skills to find space in the circle. However, defender Harmanpreet Singh fired wide from back-to-back penalty corners.
The final few minutes saw tense, end to end action with both teams keeping up a frenetic pace.
But Mandeep clinched the issue for India with a fierce reverse hit after an assist by Rupinder.