Asian Games: India take on defending champs Japan with hockey gold and Paris Olympics ticket at stake

Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

Almost nobody in the current Indian men's hockey squad knows the feeling of winning an Asian Games gold. The last time they won it, at Incheon in 2014, only Manpreet Singh and PR Sreejesh were part of the team.

On Friday, Harmanpreet Singh and his bunch will have their chance when they take on defending champions Japan in the final in Hangzhou. Win the gold and India seals their spot for the Paris Olympics.

How have India performed so far?

India, world no. 3 and the top-ranked nation in Asia, were expected to top their group with plenty of goals to show. They did exactly that -- beating Uzbekistan 16-0, Singapore 16-1, Pakistan 10-2, Bangladesh 12-0 and their opponents in the final, Japan 4-2.

The semifinal match against South Korea was a tricky one to negotiate. They took a big 3-0 lead in the first quarter but South Korea responded with two quick goals in the second. India eventually scored two more and stopped South Korea from scoring more than one to see out a 5-3 win.

What has worked for India so far?

As many as 14 players have scored for India in this tournament with Harmanpeet and Mandeep Singh leading the charts with 11 goals each in six matches.

Although India didn't face much of a competition in the group stage, head coach Craig Fulton will take the positives of seeing so many scorers in his team. The likes of Varun Kumar has eight goals, Lalit Upadhyay seven, Abhishek six, Amit Rohidas four, Shamsher three and Hardik two.

Harmanpreet is the leading scorer, but India were not dependent on his penalty corners alone. In fact, even in converting penalty corners, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas contributed, scoring four each.

The semifinal win against South Korea was a perfect example of that. India won only three penalty corners the whole match. Harmanpreet missed two, while Rohidas came up with a brilliant dragflick to beat the goalkeeper. Mandeep, Abhishek and Lalit also stepped up against South Korea to score field goals.

Harmanpreet will still be the most important player going into the Asian Games final, but India have shown they can win without his goals against a tricky opponent.

How can Japan hurt India?

Japan have beaten a red-hot China to make it to the final for the second consecutive time. China, buoyed by the home support, defeated higher-ranked nations South Korea and drew with Malaysia to finish on top of their group. They had momentum and confidence in their side, but Japan spoiled their party by beating them 3-2.

In the group stage match against Japan, India were dominant in the first three quarters and were ahead 4-0. But they lost control of the match in the final 15 minutes and conceded twice. No damage was done in terms of result but Japan showed they can punish if they sense that the other team are not in control.

India are a better team so they will keep possession and create more chances. Japan will not dominate them but they can hurt them in short bursts, be it on the counter or by converting the penalty corners.

Even against South Korea, India kept conceding even though they were up in the match and playing better hockey. South Korea never allowed India to gain complete control of the match despite being down on goals. They took their chances and kept themselves in the match.

Fulton craves for control and solid defensive blocks off the ball. Even now, it seems the attack to defence transition is still a work in progress.

In short, India cannot afford to lose control even if they are two or three goals up. They cannot drop off the intensity like they did in the last match against Japan. The repercussion here is missing out on gold and an automatic qualification to the Paris Olympics.

Who are the players to watch out for?

Mandeep has been a top performer with the way he's finishing the chance. He's a forward but he usually makes opportunities for other forwards to score. He runs the most, makes space and provides the assist. But here at Asiad, Mandeep is also taking the chances to score field goals, which bodes well in terms of reducing the burden on Harmanpreet's penalty corners.

Amit Rohidas has been outstanding in the defence as well as contributing with the goals. His dragflicking has improved massively and his defence was crucial in keeping South Korea in check despite coming under immense pressure. One more match to go and he'll be needed at his best against Japan.

Hardik Singh is not only India's best midfielder but one of the best in the world. He's the one who orchestrates the attacking play from the middle while being rock solid with his defending. He was missed at the World Cup where he was injured in the crucial matches so he will want to do his bit for this final and help India win a gold.