India take on Malaysia in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai on Saturday night. The hosts raised their own performance standards in the semifinal, with a superb display of controlled attacking hockey to beat Japan 5-0.
It was India's best performance so far under Craig Fulton, with the solidity in defence matched by the sharpness of the attacking play. Japan had just one shot on goal, India conceded no penalty corners, and then scored four field goals out of the five.
"It was pleasing to see what we did tonight," Fulton said after the game. "Now we recover and go again tomorrow."
They will face a side who also put in their best performance of the tournament so far, as Malaysia turned on the style to beat South Korea 6-2 in their semifinal. They made it to their first Asian Champions Trophy final, having previously finished third five times in six editions of the tournament.
Malaysia coach Arul Anthoni told ESPN after the game that he was proud of the achievements of his players, making the final, while also climbing up to no. 9 in the world rankings.
A clash of styles
Fulton's emphasis on control and defensive organisation comes up against Malaysia's relentless speed and energy in the final, but India have already beaten Malaysia 5-0 earlier this week in the league phase of the tournament.
Both Fulton and Indian captain Harmanpreet Singh, though, downplayed the earlier win saying that India need to focus on the task ahead of them. "We need to be strong defensively, and convert the chances that we create," Harmanpreet said.
The skipper also stressed the need for India to control the tempo of the final. "When we have the ball, we have to know what pace we should play at, when we should attack, we need to be a little smart about it. It won't be an easy game, but we're fully ready," he said.
The key to setting the tempo and controlling the game for India will be their midfielders, all of whom impressed Fulton in the semifinal.
"They've all played a lot of hockey together. When they're in full flow and they're free, they can open up opposition defences, they were the engine room and that was to see," the coach said.
"Malaysia are playing well, they have good players, but we can't worry about them. We need to only be worried about ourselves. We respect them, but we should take our opportunities," said goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who played his 300th game for India in the semifinal against Japan.
- Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 11, 2023
A test of India's fitness
This final will be India's 11th match in the space of 18 days. They played the first four in Spain and then had to adapt to the heat and humidity of Chennai. "We arrived just three days before the start, I always said you'd see the best of us from Days 5 and 6, and that's what has happened," Fulton said.
Anthoni, meanwhile, was glad about the extra couple of hours that his side got to recover from their exertions in the semifinal, while saying that the focus would be on recovery more than anything else.
India, though, have another worrisome pattern to contend with. In both matches so far that they've played without a day's rest, their performance has been underwhelming. The attack came up short in a 1-1 draw against Japan first, and then a narrow win against Korea after a forgettable fourth quarter performance where they nearly lost a two-goal lead.
"Within those results, we have our own standards, we want to perform to a high level, so the challenge is set tomorrow. We look forward to going back-to-back, we did what we wanted to do today," Fulton said after the semifinal.
India haven't won a senior men's trophy at home soil since 2007, when they won the Asia Cup in Chennai. 16 years later, and a month ahead of the Asian Games, they have another opportunity to do so. It is an opportunity to send out a message on who the clear favourites are for the qualification to the Paris Olympics.
India's match against Malaysia will begin at 8.30 PM. South Korea take on Japan at 6 PM to determine the third place finish in the tournament.