JAPAN coach Kang Keon-Wook played down his team's chances against Malaysia in the semi-finals of the World League Round Two at the Sengkang Hockey Stadium in Singapore today.
The Korean, who led his team to a silver medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, felt Malaysia are a totally different side from the one which he saw in action last year.
Even though Malaysia beat Japan 4-1 in the Asian Games last year, Kang was really impressed with the progress made by the national players since.
The other factor for the Korean to claim the underdogs tag is because he had to make eight changes to his Asian Games side due to injuries to key players.
"I believe Malaysia will be our toughest opponents in this tournament as they have improved so much since I last saw them at the Asian Games. There is more understanding, and the players give their all in every match and this can be seen from the impressive scorelines," said Kang.
Japan were beaten 3-2 by Poland in Group B, while Malaysia enter the semi-finals with a perfect record after whacking Ukraine 5-1, Oman 7-0, Singapore 16-1 and Mexico 10-1.
Kang's men beat Bangladesh 5-1, Mexico 6-0 and Ukraine 5-0 to play in the semis.
"The biggest problem with Japan, since I took over for the last two years, is the constant changes in players every few months due to injury, club commitment and also early retirement. I had to select eight new players for this tournament because many of the best picked up injuries playing in the local league.
"You can see from the scoreline, Malaysia are really playing well. But then again, we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in this match, so we will not make it easy," said Kang.
Malaysia must beat Japan to claim an early ticket to the World League Round Two, even though three are in offer in Singapore.
Malaysian coach Tai Beng Hai is optimistic his charges will not let the country down: "As usual the instructions will be not to take any team lightly and Japan can be dangerous if we allow them space. We need to score early goals to douse the fire, and I am confident the forward-line will make the chances count."
That is the biggest problem with the team right now, as the forward-line has missed too many sitters even though the opponents were nothing to shout about thus far.
In the worse case scenario, if Malaysia lose against Japan today, they still have the bronze medal to fight for and their highly likely opponents are Oman, as Poland are tipped to sail into the final.
RESULTS: Fifth-Eighth -- Mexico 2 Ukraine 4; Bangladesh 3 Singapore 0.
Jan 24: Semi-finals -- Malaysia v Japan (3pm); Poland v Oman (5.30pm).