'We are not underestimating the
Japanese,' says Dhanraj
India will be looking to build on their impressive showing of last year when they take the field against Japan in their opening match of the 10th men's World Cup, which commences at the National stadium, in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
With the Junior World Cup and Champions Challenge titles under their belt, most of coaches feel India, who won the World Cup in 1975, will make it to the semi-finals. Dutch coach Joost Bellaart even maintains that India, Korea and Australia are the only teams which can hope to qualify from Pool B.
The Indian frontline will be looking for a big win against Japan which should serve as a confidence booster in the following matches.
Ace centre-forward Dhanraj Pillay says, "We are prepared. We are not underestimating the Japanese but we know our strengths and we'll play according to that. We will go all out for a win."
With an attack that boasts of Dhanraj Pillay, Junior World Cup stars Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur, Bipin Fernandez, Arjun Hallapa and, of course, captain Baljit Singh Dhillon, it would be difficult for the Japanese to hold India back, unless, the forwards choke in the striking circle.
But coach Cedric D'Souza says that will not happen. "We have trained for this tournament and we are waiting for the moment. I don't see the team choking even under pressure."
Japan, however, refuse to be drawn into discussion on what could happen in the match. They refuse to predict results, but at the same time, manager Toichi Nagai agrees they would need a miracle to get past India.
"Look at their forwards and look at their flair," he says. "We can't even think of having the same skills. But, yes, we will make a match of it. We have never won against them in a World Cup or even internationally but we have had some close games in the past. And we hope our defence will restrict them."
What Nagai also feels, but doesn't say, is that Japan are quite happy with the tag of minnows for the World Cup as they feel this would lead their opponents into a lull of complacency.
And they hope they could use this to their advantage when they take on India under lights at pitch 2 at the Bukit Jalil stadium.
Even D'Souza, with all his preparation, knows the opener would be tough.
"In the World Cup qualifier in Edinburgh, they gave us a heart attack in the league match. Even in the match for 5-6th place, they gave us a tough fight and we barely managed to squeeze through," recalled D'Souza.
If Japan wants a great start to their World Cup campaign, then they need to play down the middle, using their flanks to stretch the Indian defence.
They have caused problems earlier with that strategy as sometimes the Indian defence, led by Dilip Tirkey, wanders up, leaving gaps at the back. Japan's speed on the counter-attack is tremendous and it's there that they could upset the Indian applecart.
Of course, there is Nahiko Tobita, who will always be a menace in the penalty-corner department.
The best thing about Japanese hockey is that they know their limitations and they will not get ambitious to experiment with the Indians, who can turn a match on it's head given a few opportunities.
As far as one can understand from D'Souza's tactics and strategy that he employed in the training games with South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina, he would definitely start with Baljit Dhillon, Prabhjot Singh, Dhanraj Pillay and Deepak Thakur upfront and then looking at the match situation probably pull back Pillay and replace him with Daljit Dhillon. Baljit, however, would be used as a centre-forward and also as an attacking midfielder.
Captain Dhillon has the ability to use the space created by the fowards to provide some defence splitting passes. And for men like Pillay, Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, these would be the perfect setting for striking in goals.
Even the midfield has an attacking stance. If Daljit is not played upfront, D'Souza would use him as central-midfielder with Saini attacking from the flanks to send Pillay through. Thirumal would be the schemer and also the man who falls back.
The defence seems absolutely sound with Dilip Tirkey, Jugraj Singh, Lazarus Barla, all experienced and raring to go.
Tirkey feels this is the team's best defense ever. "We have the players who now have enough experience to play against top class teams. Even Kanwalpreet Singh and Jugraj Singh, though juniors, have the temperment to go all out. And then, Jugraj is our main striker in the penalty-corner situations."
The last line of defence, goalkeeper Jude Menezes, is in good form and has also improved a lot since making his debut in the 1998 World Cup. "That was a difficult World Cup and I want to erase those bitter memories," he said, after a training session last evening. "I was making my debut and I really wasn't up to it. But this time, I know I am good, with my confidence sky-high; as a team we will surely make it to the last four."
Dressed in casuals, making their way into the team bus for a luncheon appointment with the Indian High Commissioner in Malaysia, the Indian team looked a happy and confident lot. As Dhanraj Pillay made his way into the bus, surrounded by cameras and reporters, he exclaimed: "Watch out for us!"
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