Men's FIH Series Finals: Asian Games champions Japan set up all-important semifinal date with India
It is not often that one encounters a scenario where winning a semifinal becomes more important than ending as champion - but when the task at hand happens to be progressing to the Olympic qualifiers, and the criteria to achieve the same dependent on finishing amongst the top two - making it to the finals is equivalent to winning the battle.
The Asian Games champions began in right earnest but failed to control many a ball in and around the striking the circle, while the Poles made it count off their very first circle penetration, stunning the Japanese and upsetting the rhythm of their strikers quite a bit.
Mikolaj Gumny's goal against the run of play ensured a keen contest and the Japanese subsequently restored parity through Shota Yamada who fired one home off a PC five minutes into the second quarter.
Hirotaka Zendana gave his side the lead three minutes later much to the delight of his teammates but Polish danger man Mateusz Hulboj made sure that Karol Sniezek's side was back in the contest after managing to find the back of the net from another rare foray.
Two goals in as many minutes - Kenta Tenaka's deflection off a PC, and Koji Yamasaki's effort from open play in the third quarter - sealed the fate of the lower-ranked Europeans who relied purely on the odd counterattack to stop the speedy Japanese who did misfire quite a bit.
The match was played at searing hot temperatures that touched 38 degrees as a result of which extra breaks were introduced and Kenji Kitazato's fifth goal ensured that there was no way back for the Poles.
Koji Yamasaki added to the tally at the death, and as a result of the win, the Japanese have earned the right to play India in the vital semifinals on Friday - an encounter which the hosts need to win in order to ensure direct entry into the next round of the Olympic qualifiers that are scheduled later this year.
Video referrals have not been used for the tournament as the FIH deemed that the same would be unfair to many lower-ranked sides who are not familiar with how the referral rules work according to coach Siegfried Aikman who spoke to Sportskeeda on the subject.
"There are some low-ranked teams participating and they don't have experience with video referrals - and according to the FIH that would not be fair."
In spite of the vast difference in rankings between the two continental rivals - with the fifth-ranked Indians way ahead of the Japanese who are ranked eighteenth - a couple of close results in the last two meetings between the old rivals effectively means that Graham Reid's side can ill afford to be complacent in the vital clash.
Yet, the Indians did end up as the winning team in the Asian Games, Asian Champions Trophy, and Azlan Shah Cup, and will begin firm favourites against a Japanese side that have not been at their best, thus far, at Bhubaneswar.
Friday's semifinal between India and Japan will begin at 1915 IST (and not at 1700 IST as previously scheduled) because of broadcaster preferences, as per Hockey India.