Dominant India look to iron out flaws, boost WC credentials

Manpreet Singh celebrates a goal with Harmanpreet Singh. Hockey India

Defending champions India go into Saturday's Asian Champions Trophy semi-final against Japan as the overwhelming favourites, having beaten the Asian Games gold medallists 9-0 in the league stages.

India, however, will also be wary of their patchy knockout form, which has seen them slip up at the Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy and the Asian Games this year.

A Sunday final against Malaysia or Pakistan awaits, with both nations also likely to be knockout opponents in next month's home World Cup. While coach Harendra Singh's team have ticked most boxes, any weaknesses shown in the next two matches will be watched and noted by the teams heading to Bhubaneswar.

The leadership of the senior men

Manpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh have been two of India's best performers through the tournament, scoring two sensational goals to lead them to a 3-1 win against Pakistan. Manpreet, in particular, has been one of the most influential players in the entire field, scoring goals, distributing passes, and running out fearlessly to defend penalty corner (PC) attempts by the opposition.

Another top player for India has been forward Akashdeep Singh, who has performed more of a playmaker's role in Muscat. Weaving in and out of defences, he has used his skills and peripheral vision to set up goals for younger team-mates, and with his own finishing skills not in doubt, this bodes well for how influential he could be at the World Cup.

The young brigade and their enthusiasm

With this tournament being the first competitive outing for India since Sardar Singh's retirement, there was always going to be interest around the younger crop and their influence on proceedings. India need not worry though, especially in the middle of the park, where players like Hardik Singh and Nilakanta Sharma have shown maturity, composure and a cool head under pressure.

Up front, Dilpreet Singh has displayed good poaching instincts, but must avoid getting carried away with his intensity, as he did against Japan when he shoved an opponent in the back and had to sit out for the next 10 minutes after being shown a yellow card. Only defender Jarmanpreet Singh has looked a little out of sorts -- while his control and tackling have usually been on point, he has often been too slow, or has hurried into releasing the ball, leading to easy turnovers for the opponents.

India's indifferent PC conversion

India have 11 of their 27 goals in the five games either from PCs, or from action directly resulting from them, converting exactly half of all such opportunities. Critically, none of their PCs against Pakistan and Malaysia resulted in goals.

This could be purely strategic, though, as India have often gone in with just one battery for their PCs. Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar have been the only ones alternating on drag-flicks, and India have rarely used any variation other than the occasional deflected ball by the injector, or off the rebound. There's a good chance Harendra is saving the variations for a tougher knockout situation, or maybe even for Bhubaneswar.

India too can be held at bay

India have dominated most of all their games in Muscat, as the top-ranked Asian nation at five ideally should, having ceded control of perhaps just the first quarter to Pakistan, and the middle two quarters against Korea after taking a 2-0 lead.

Their only shutout happened against Malaysia, who were very disciplined and tactical in how they choked India out. Coached now by Roelant Oltmans, Malaysia sat deep in their court, defended with their bodies close to the ground, and especially did well to intercept both crash balls and attempts at playing lofted passes towards their baseline.

Korea also frustrated India for long periods. India's reserve goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, who played the second halves of both the Malaysia and Korea matches, had to pull off a few good saves off the counter from the speedier players of those teams.

Any errors in the knockouts could be punished severely, and somewhere India must hope to keep their best for last over the fortnight in Muscat.