Asian Champions Trophy: Penalty corner brilliance gives India dominant win, but defensive issues persist

FILE: Skipper Harmanpreet Singh scored twice against China. Hockey India

By the end of the first quarter, the result of India's Asian Champions Trophy opener against China was only a formality. Craig Fulton's side opened their campaign with a sizzling 15-minute period where they scored three times, and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh might as well be with the crowd that packed the stands at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai.

It's not been an easy couple of months for the Indian team, with mixed results in the Pro League outings in Great Britain and the Netherlands followed by another lukewarm tournament in Spain last week. A major cause for concern for Fulton would've been that the goals had dried up. India hadn't scored more than two goals in any of their last six matches.

Speaking to ESPN after the game, Fulton said that irrespective of the quality of the opposition, goals are always good for the side's confidence.

"Scoring goals is what every team wants to do, sometimes you do, sometimes you can't. But it's not for the lack of trying. Tonight, we did well, and we converted our chances," the Indian coach said.

Lethal from penalty corners

After captain Harmanpreet Singh's well-documented struggles from penalty corners at the World Cup earlier this year, India have consistently improved and showed off their drag-flicking prowess.

Fulton was particularly impressed by how the team wasn't just reliant on their captain to get his dragflicks right. "A different range of flickers as well, not just Harman. It was nice to see Varun [Kumar] get in on the act today," he said.

Harmanpreet and Varun scored two each directly from penalty corners while Mandeep Singh notched up his 100th international goal with a neatly executed variation.

Varun told ESPN after the game that plenty of work had been done on the execution of penalty corners after the World Cup, and that has been paying off for the likes of him, Harmanpreet, Amit Rohidas and Jugraj Singh. He also said that newly-laid turf at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium had enough speed in it to assist dragflickers.

Both Varun and Harmanpreet ended up scoring two goals each with dragflicks to the goalkeeper's left, with the former putting that down to something that Fulton had spotted.

"Before every PC, we have a chat with the coach on the execution, and this was something he had spotted," Varun said. "That's just my job," Fulton was quick to respond.

Inability to sustain dominance an area to work on

After the rampant first quarter, India let their standards drop in the second half. Fulton was clear that it was something his side cannot afford against better teams in the bigger tests that they have coming up in the next couple of months.

"We didn't do too well in the second quarter, but at least we came back in the third," the coach said.

China's first goal -- a sensational solo effort from E Wenhui could've been stopped by Indian defenders at multiple points during the Chinese forward's run. However, Jarmanpreet Singh allowed Wenhui to run one-on-one with Krishan Pathak in goal, and the Chinese forward made no mistake in sliding a finish underneath the goalkeeper.

India also conceded a few penalty corners in the game that Varun felt could've been avoided. He also said that as a unit, they're always disappointed to concede, whatever the type of goal, even unsavable ones like Gao Jiesheng's penalty corner that flew into the roof of the net.

It's those periods of sloppiness, like the second quarter, in which Fulton lamented that India needed to get out of their system. The fourth quarter was an example of how India can manage games without needing to be gung-ho whenever in possession. With Manpreet Singh back in the midfield to dictate the tempo and control possession alongside Hardik Singh, it sets India up strongly in the engine room to do just that. As the tests become more challenging through the course of the tournament, India will need that acumen just as much as they will need to score goals from different sources.