Hockey: Japanese test awaits India on their road to Tokyo

India will look to register their place in the next round of hockey qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as they face an already-qualified Japan in their semi-final match of the FIH Series Finals here at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium on Friday evening. 
After finishing at the top of Pool A with three wins to their name, the World No. 5 Indian team will face the tough task of defeating World No. 18 Japan to secure their place in the final of the competition, and with it, a place in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers which are to be held later in October-November.
India has remained unbeaten in the competition so far as they finished with nine points from their three matches in Pool A, defeating Russia 10-0, Poland 3-1 and Uzbekistan 10-0. 
On the other hand, Japan finished second in Pool B with seven points from their three matches, behind leaders USA on an inferior goal difference. 
The Asian Games 2018 gold medalists started their campaign with a 3-1 win against Mexico, and then defeated World No. 16 South Africa 2-0, but could only manage a 2-2 draw against USA in their last pool match which saw them advance to the cross-over match against Poland.
In the cross-over encounter, Japan defeated Poland 6-2 to advance to the semi-final against India. 
The hosts do hold an advantage against the Japanese team as they have finished on the winning note in all of their last 13 meetings, scoring an overwhelming 61 goals in the process and conceding only 12 goals. 
However, Chief Coach Graham Reid says that his team is only focused on tomorrow's match and will not be depending on the past statistics, "We do have a good record against the Japanese side, and we beat them 2-0 in the last encounter at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup  but it is a new day and a new match for everyone involved. We like to focus on the upcoming match and treat it as a match that we need to win."
Speaking on the threat that Japan carry, Reid said, "Japan is a strong team and put in a great performance against Poland last night. It is a semi-final match that we need to win, and we will be focusing on doing the right things to make sure that we can tackle the threat that Japan carry."
The highest ranked team and favourites to win the tournament, India have scored a total of 23 goals which have come through 10 different goal-scorers in the FIH Men's Series Finals Bhubaneswar Odisha 2019 so far and have only conceded once in the tournament, but the Japanese forward-line can test their resolve when the two teams face off for the second time this year. However, defender and vice-captain Birendra Lakra believes his team is in good form, and can stop their opponents from creating opportunities. 
"It is a tough challenge for us against a strong Japanese side, but we have been doing well as a unit throughout the tournament. Our defence will need to be strong as they have some good attacking players in their ranks. It will be important that we start the match well and take our good momentum into this match. The local crowd support has been amazing, and i am expecting a great performance from the team tomorrow."
In case Japan finish in the top 2, they will not secure a place in the Olympic qualifiers since they have already qualified as both host of the 2020 Olympic Games and winners of the Asian Games.
If Japan do finish in the top 2, the team that finishes third does NOT automatically qualify for the Olympic qualifiers. Such additional place is determined by the FIH World Rankings as at the completion of the continental championships (8 September ).

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