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India face stiff test against Germany
Anand Philar | January 07, 2004 16:16 IST
An under strength Indian team will be tested to the hilt when it takes on formidable opponents in the seven-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament, which commences at the National Hockey Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Few would readily back India, who won the Asia Cup in September and Afro-Asian Games title the following month, to win the event that also serves as a dress rehearsal for four of the teams -- India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Spain -- who will be travelling to Madrid in March for the Olympic qualifying competition.
While the Indians have opted to field a side comprising mainly junior players, the others – World champions Germany, Asian Games gold medallists Korea, World Cup silver medallists Australia, Pakistan, Spain and Malaysia -- will be at full strength.
The Indians have obviously viewed the Azlan Shah Cup tournament, which they have won thrice (1985, '91, '95), as part of their preparations for the Madrid outing and from there to the Athens Olympics in August.
With the Indian Hockey Federation resting several key players, Indian hopes in the tournament rest squarely on the experience of Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon, whom the younger players will be looking up to for guidance and inspiration.
Though the younger lot has had a taste of international competition, for most it will be a debut at the highest level.
When viewed in this light, India's chances of figuring on the podium, much less winning the competition under coach Harendra Singh, are not bright.
Harendra, who standing in for chief coach Rajinder Singh, who is also in Kuala Lumpur as an IHF Observer, will have his task cut out, though he exuded optimism of a good outing.
"We have a young side and I am hopeful of a strong showing in this tournament," he said.
The guarded optimism is not misplaced considering the strength of the other teams.
Germany, coached by Bernhard Peters, are on a high. They qualified for the Olympics by winning the European Cup and also are playing at the same venue where they annexed the 2002 World Cup, beating Australia in the final.
In fact, Germany, led by sweeper-back Florian Kunz, have 14 players who were part of the 2002 World Cup squad. As such, they will not be lacking in experience or craft. With such a strong line-up they certainly will fancy their chances of winning the Cup.
Pakistan, the defending champions, are also out in full strength, and under celebrated Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans, who took charge last October, they are hoping to make up for a disastrous 2003, when they won only one title, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
The 49-year old Oltmans, who masterminded the Dutch run of success in the late 1990s, including the Olympic, World and Champions Trophy gold medals, has dubbed his new team as the "Green Machine", after the green shirts that the Pakistanis play in.
The Australians, coached by Barry Dancer, are also treating the tournament as a major preparatory exercise in their quest for the elusive Olympic gold medal.
"We have assembled a good team that is young and can handle the challenge. But the next eight months will be crucial as we fine-tune and finalise the final 18," said Dancer, who has included seven players from the 2002 World Cup team, besides a host of promising young players.
Spain too have arrived with an experienced outfit, as also the Koreans. These two teams could well be rated as "dark horses" who, on their day, can put it past the best.
Hosts Malaysia had their hands full in deciding upon the final composition of the squad with coach Paul Lissek having to sift through a list of injured players while also trying to maintain a balance between youth and experience.
Thursday's matches (all timings IST):
1: 35 pm: Korea vs Pakistan
3.35 pm: India vs Germany
5.35 pm: Malaysia vs Spain