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Zen-like Japan biggest obstacle for India in Series Finals

The Japanese team put in a visit to the Peace Pagoda, a day ahead of their Series Finals semifinal against hosts India in Bhubaneswar. Odisha Tourism

On paper, Friday's FIH Series Finals last-four clash between hosts India and Japan in Bhubaneswar is a no-contest.

Fifth-ranked India are riding high, with 23 goals in their three pool matches. As many as 10 of the 16 outfield players have scored, both from open play and penalty corners, while they have conceded just once, against Poland.

The last time these teams met, India ran out 8-0 winners at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Eight days later, though, India beat Pakistan to pick up the bronze medal, while Japan fought back spectacularly from 2-5 down with eight minutes to go against Malaysia to become the first country outside India, Pakistan and South Korea to have claimed the men's hockey gold in Asian Games history.

It is that spirit that Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman wants his team, who have already qualified for the 2020 Olympics as hosts, to harness.

"We always fight, and we want to give our best on the field. As long as the match is on, there are possibilities to recover," Aikman tells ESPN. "Our final goal is to do well at the Olympics, and to do that we need to test ourselves. This is a test, to see how we can do with the better teams. I had hoped the match against India would be the final, but [it] doesn't matter. We have to win it."

The day ahead of the big game, the 18th-ranked Japanese team visited the Peace Pagoda -- Sanchi Stupa for locals -- along the Daya river in Dhauli, about eight kms south of Bhubaneswar. It is said the Mauryan king Ashoka, who ruled these parts more than two millennia ago, renounced the path of war and embraced Buddhism when he saw the river turn red in the aftermath of the Kalinga war.

For all of the Japanese players, this trip to Bhubaneswar is their first time in India, and they have also been told about the devastation left behind by Cyclone Fani, which hit the eastern parts of India at the end of April, and left more than 60 casualties in Odisha alone. The trip to Dhauli, says Aikman, was the first bus ride that didn't involve going to the stadium or the hotel.

Aikman picked up lessons from the post-cyclone rehabilitation programs, especially those that enabled the hockey to continue as scheduled just a month on from the cyclone, to inspire his team. "It's a warm place, and it's also a bit sad to see what the cyclone has done. On the other hand it is fantastic to see how the people have dealt with it and carried on rebuilding with life," he says, observing that the number of trees uprooted due to the cyclone have left the city's green cover considerably reduced. "It's inspiring, because whatever devastation there is, there's always a way up as long as you keep going forward."

"That's what I tell my players in the match. If we have some bad moments or if we lose, the world isn't gone. We can always recover."

That philosophy was apparent when trailing 0-1 after one quarter of their crossover against Poland on Wednesday. Their first two penalty corners were put away to make it 2-1, and while Poland equalised, Japan's attacking trio of Kenta Tanaka, Kenji Kitazato and Koji Yamasaki then turned the screws on their opponents. With a 5-2 lead, Japan conceded their first penalty corner in the 59th minute, defended it well, and then Tanaka set up Yamasaki for a sixth with 37 seconds to go.

"We are a team that never gives up. That's our strength and that's also what I like about what I see it. This is what I use when I want to inspire them. They will need some inspiration to deal with the opposition," says Aikman, preparing to brace for the task of keeping a forwardline with Akashdeep Singh (five goals), Mandeep Singh (two), Gursahibjit Singh (two) and Simranjit Singh (one) in check.

"India play at high speed, they are skilled. It's a big challenge, and life is about challenges, and it's one we will happily accept."