India will start as favourites when the fourth edition of the men’s Asian Champions Trophy begins in the Malaysian coastal city of Kuantan, Pahang on October 20.
The PR Sreejesh-led side is the only participating team in the tournament, which is placed in the top-ten of the International Hockey Federation’s World Rankings. Besides, they are the only nation from Asia, who participated in the Rio Olympics.
However, it is easier said than done as life will not be easy for India, currently sixth in the world rankings. The other teams in the tournament are Pakistan, Korea, Japan and China, apart from hosts Malaysia.
India, who won the inaugural edition in 2011, will take on Japan in their first match of the tournament on Thursday at the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium. Japan, led by forward Hiroki Sakamoto, is making a return to the international scene after a six-month hiatus. But their absence does not mean they will prove to be pushovers in the event.
The team proved to be a hard nut to crack when it last met India in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April this year. They made India sweat in that pulsating encounter as they took the lead against the Asian champions in the 17th minute. India managed to edge past the minnows 2-1 and finished runners-up in the tournament, losing to Australia 0-4 in the final.
Japan might again make the eight-time Olympics champions toil as their team is a perfect blend of youth and experience. Japan finished runners-up in the last edition losing to two-time winners Pakistan in the summit clash. With an average age of 23, they will look to make their presence count this time around as the Champions Trophy will be followed by the Asia Cup next year, which in turn, will double as a World Cup qualifier.
Tricky customers Korea
Ranked 11th in the world, Korea are known to put up a brave fight against their more-fancied opponents. Their defensive tactics, coupled with opportunist forwards, can make them a dangerous proposition to play with.
MK Kaushik, a member of the gold-medal winning men’s team in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and former coach of both the senior men’s and women’s teams, also believed that India need to step-up their defence to come out with flying colours in the tournament.
“We are on a roll at the moment. All other participating teams are ranked lowly in the world rankings and we should cash on it,” said Kaushik.
However, he warned that Sreejesh’s side could not get complacent. “The only thing we need to avoid while playing against teams like Pakistan and Korea is to avoid conceding penalty corners. Once we manage to do that, there is no chance of us getting beaten by these teams,” he said.
Sreejesh’s comments add spice to Pakistan clash
Korea’s match will be followed by a high-intensity contest against Pakistan on Sunday. And if that was not enough, India skipper PR Sreejesh made the match even more important by saying that India will play to beat their arch-rivals to honour their soldiers.
“India-Pakistan match brings a lot of excitement to the table. We want to give our hundred per cent. We don’t want to disappoint our soldiers by losing, especially when they sacrifice their lives in the exchange of fire at the border,” Sreejesh had said before leaving for Malaysia.
However, Pakistan can never be taken lightly and the new-look team, whose last international assignment was also the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April this year, would be a team to beat in the tournament.
Roelant Oltmans’ team will next take on China and Malaysia on October 25 and 26 respectively. At 18th in the rankings, China are the lowest ranked side in the tournament but a dominating show against them will give India a lot of confidence going into their next match against hosts Malaysia.
Malaysia, who are currently in the 14th spot in the rankings, will be bolstered by presence of penalty-corner specialist Muhammad Razie Abdul Rahim. Razie returns to the national squad along with midfielder Nabil Fiqri Muhammad Noor and forward Faizal Saari for the tournament. Their presence coupled with support from home crowd make Malaysia a force to reckon with in the event.