India begin Azlan Shah campaign with scratchy 2-1 win over Japan

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Ipoh, Malaysia, April 6 (IANS) India’s hockey team defeated Japan 2-1 in a scratchy opening match of the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup here on Wednesday.

Harmanpreet Singh (25th minute) converted a penalty corner to bring India level 1-1 after Kenji Kitazato put Japan ahead in the 17th minute. India put up a better show in the second half, ushered in by the clinical finish from captain Sardar Singh in the 32nd minute.

While this game would have helped the Indians to shed the initial apprehension, especially playing international hockey after long time, but they have a huge task ahead of them when they face current world champions Australia on Thursday.

“When players haven’t played competitive matches for a while, they lack a certain amount of match sharpness and that was evident in our play in the first half,” chief coach Roelant Oltmans said in a release.

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“But, we changed that, and came out with the victory, which is the important thing.”

Oltmans also said: “A huge amount of credit must also go to Japan, for having given us a tough outing. They are a young team and must be applauded.”

And Japan truely deserved the credit for taking the Indians to the task. At the Azlan Shah Stadium, the 16th-ranked Japanese, even though outplayed in the ball possession race, fought hard.

India started strongly and held almost 84 percent of the possession in the first five minutes but the first quarter ended goalless as Japan defended strongly.

In the second minute of the second quarter, Japan added to the surprise, by winning the first penalty corner of the match and duly converted it to score the opener. Kitazato was the star for them.

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Soon after India got their act together and started stringing together the sort of game the crowd had come in expecting, with the equaliser for India coming through the stick of Harmanpreet in the 25th minute via their first penalty corner. The teams went into the break locked at 1-1.

The second half saw India come out with a changed game plan, and a complete shift in body language. Captain Sardar took the reins of the midfield and started bossing the Japanese, and was unsurprisingly, the scorer of their second goal in the 32nd minute.

In a move that started at the edge of the circle, with India passing the ball around, Sardar pressed forward to receive Jasjit Singh Kular’s pass and the subsequent finish from a tight angle, ensured that India took the lead.

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From then on it was a one-sided display, albeit with no more goals, as India held the possession, and kept control of the game for large periods of time. Ramandeep once again went close, with a great bit of individual play as he burst past four Japanese defenders and Sardar was denied by the goalkeeper in the fourth quarter.

In the 58th minute, India got two back-to-back penalty cornerner, but Harmanpreet failed to get his second goal of the day as the seventh-ranked side closed out the match 2-1.

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