India outplayed reigning Asian Games champion Japan 7-2 to storm into the summit clash of the FIH Series Finals hockey tournament here on Friday, assuring themselves a place in the year end’s Olympic qualifying event. Returning to the side after a long injury lay-off, Ramadeep Singh (23rd, 37th minutes) finally got his mojo back with a double strike, while Harmanpreet Singh (7th), Varun Kumar (14th), Hardik Singh (25th), Gursahibjit Singh (43rd) and Vivek Sagar Prasad (47) also registered their name on the scoresheet. Japan’s goals were scored by Kenji Kitazato (2nd) and Kota Watanabe (20th).
India will face South Africa in Saturday’s final while Japan will square off against USA in the third-fourth place play-off match.
South Africa had earlier defeated USA 2-1 in the first semifinal. For the first time in the tournament, the Indian defence was literally tested as world no. 18 Japan gave a good account of themselves in patches.
To the dismay of the home crowd, Japan took the lead in the second minute from a counter attack. Kitazato slammed home past Indian goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak after receiving a pass from Kenta Tanaka from their first attack.
The stunned Indians got their act together quickly and created a flurry of opportunities. Young Gursahibjit Singh was guilty of wasting a golden chance in the fifth minute from close range after he was beautifully set up by Nilkanta Sharma and Ramadeep.
Two minutes later, India secured back-to-back penalty corners and Harmanpreet equalised from the second chance.
The Indians kept up the pressure and earned three consecutive short corners in the 14th minute and this time Varun beat Japan defence with a powerful grounded flick to hand the hosts a 2-1 lead.
But the Japanese caught the Indian defence off-guard once again in the 20th minute with another fine counter-attack when Watanabe scored after being set up by Kazuma Murata. Japan’s joy was shortlived as India restored their lead three minutes later through Ramadeep, who scored his first goal for the country after returning from a year’s injury hiatus.
Ramadeep scored with his trademark deflection from the near post after a Gurinder Singh pass from the right flank.
Minutes later, India made the scoreline 4-2 when Hardik scored with a slap shot from the top of the D.
India secured their sixth short corner soon but Varun’s effort was defended by Japanese goalkeeper Yusuke Takano. Next it was PR Sreejesh’s turn to show his skills in front of the post when he denied Shota Yamada with a diving save from Japan’s first penalty corner.
After the change of ends, the play was mostly on the Japan half as India kept up the pressure to score three more goals.
First Ramandeep scored his second of the day in the 37th minute with a rebound from a penalty corner and then Gursahibjit and Vivek Sagar Prasad also sounded the board from field efforts to register an emphatic win for India.
The FIH Series Finals provide two spots in the Olympic Qualifiers to be held in October-November this year.