Malaysia, check. Korea, check. Pakistan, check, China, check. Japan…
As expected, the Indian men’s hockey team has emerged as the best team of the tournament yet, beating everyone apart from Japan. The reigning Asian Games champions were a thorn in India’s flesh as they held on to a 1-1 draw last week despite the hosts piercing their defence and hammering their striking circle repeatedly throughout the 60 minutes.
India had 61 percent possession, earned 27 circle penetrations to Japan’s 11, had 21 shots on goal to Japan’s three and earned as many as 14 penalty corner (PC) chances to Japan’s only two. Yet the world No.19 outfit were able to hold India to a draw, forcing the home team to waste their chances.
By the skin of their teeth, Japan have made it to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions Trophy (both Japan and Pakistan had five points but the former had a better goal difference) like they did last time around. In Dhaka 2021, it was the top-placed India who faced fourth-placed Japan in the semi-final and the reigning Asian Games champions had knocked out the defending champions 5-3 in an unexpected result.
In a repeat of the same semi-final, the hosts would prefer to avenge that result in a city which has been a second home for PR Sreejesh. The semi-final will not just be any match but Sreejesh’s 300th international. Though he hails from Kerala, the 35-year-old played for the Hockey Unit of Tamil Nadu (HTNU) and was picked for India while playing for Indian Overseas Bank, Chennai.
“It is an emotional moment for me to be playing my first tournament in India colours here. It is almost like my international debut on my home ground,” says Sreejesh, who won an Olympic bronze in Tokyo two years back.
When the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year awardee takes the pitch at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium on Friday, he will become only the second player in the current team to have played 300 internationals after Manpreet Singh.
The 35-year-old goalie has aged like fine wine, also winning the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna two years back and the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year award for two successive years.
Though he wants to carry on till the 2024 Paris Olympics, Sreejesh is currently taking one tournament at a time. “I am playing at the Asian Champions Trophy right now. Then we have the Asian Games. The Olympics come next year. We will see,” said Sreejesh.
Meanwhile, India chief coach Fulton said the real tournament begins now with the two knockout matches in the next two days.
“It will be about maintaining consistency and not doing it just one way. We played a well-structured game against Pakistan. We did miss a few chances in the fourth quarter but overall we did pretty well,” Fulton said.