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India face Spain in opener

Anupam Ghulati in Amstelveen | August 13, 2005 18:59 IST

India will get an opportunity to redeem their pride as they launch their campaign in the prestigious eight-nation Rabo Cup hockey tournament with a match against strong contenders Spain in Amstelveen, on Sunday.

India's coach Rajinder Singh (Jr) would be looking to make a good impact in the match against the Champions Trophy holders, with the majority of his wards seasoned enough to face the rigours during the eight-day mega event.

However, it might not be that easy for the coach as he is faced with the dilemma regarding a specialist dragflicker. Didar Singh is being touted as the best in the business after Sandeep Singh, but the Namdhari may not find a berth in the starting eleven.

The deep defence has skipper Dilip Tirkey in the company of the erratic Kanwalpreet Singh, whose two-year ban was reduced considerably by IHF, perhaps hastily, and Harpal Singh, with the backup of Devesh Chauhan in goal.

The four midfielders find a readymade slot with Arjun Halappa, Viren Rasquinha, Bimal Lakra and Ignace Tirkey capable of blunting quality opposition attacks, with the hard working Jaswinder Singh also as a backup.

The forwardline is spearheaded by 26 year old sharpshooter Gagan Ajit Singh with the support of three Indian Oil men, striker Deepak Thakur and wingers Prabhjot Singh and Rajpal Singh. However, they will need to find their rhythm and cohesion from day one to provide a vital winning start.

With most goalkeepers having mastered the art of stopping set piece penalty corners, as those executed by Tirkey and Kanwalpreet, the Indian coach will have to find new strategies besides relying on various indirect combinations. Hopefully, he would have done that at the Chandigarh camp.

Meanwhile, Olympic champions Australia along with world champions Germany and hosts Holland appear to be title favourites for the tournament to be played at the picturesque Wagner Stadium.

The other squads in this top flight tournament, billed as the biggest of the year, are Asian Games title holders South Korea, Pakistan and England.

The teams have been divided into two pools. India, Spain, Germany and Pakistan are drawn in Pool A, while Australia, England, Holland and South Korea form Pool B. Four teams -- Australia, Germany, Holland and Pakistan will arrive here only on Monday morning after the Hamburg Masters Tournament.

Spain has been undoubtedly the most improved team in the last decade, having won silver medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the Utrecht World Cup.

Their crowning glory came at the last Champions Trophy at Lahore in December when they annexed their maiden title under their Dutch coach Maurits Hendriks.

Hendriks is the man responsible for the restructuring of the Spanish league, reducing the first division teams to ten from twelve. He has also designed the 'play-off' concept with the top five teams fighting for the championship.

The team is led by the 38-year-old university teacher from del San Vincente, Juan Escarre, the schemer who played for Chennai Veerans in the Indian Premier Hockey League in January.

The familiar Victor Sojo, Santiago Freixa, Xavier Ribas, Albert Sala besides the Fabregas brothers are also in the Spanish squad as is youngster David Alegre, fresh from his outing in the Junior World Cup last month.

The Aussies, like the Germans and the Dutch, will be hard to beat, but the men from Down Under could hold the edge with their lightening counter attacking skills and turnovers. The victory at Kuala Lumpur at the last Azlan Shah Cup in June was a big boost after a long layoff for the Athens gold medallists.

Most members of that Olympic team will be seen in action here. However, Michael Boyce and Nathan Eglington had to drop out due to ankle injuries and have been replaced by midfielders Matt Naylor and Ben Bishop.

Coach Barry Dancer still has plenty of talent and bench strength with defenders Dean Butler, Liam de Young, Bevan George and Mathew Wells with Luke Doerner, the Azuma Vikings penalty corner hitman.

Europe is represented by four teams that have little to choose between, at least, three of them, Germany, Holland and Spain. All these squads will leave for Leipzig in Germany for the European Nations Cup immediately after this tournament.

Germany, who are the holders of the Rabo Trophy, having beaten Holland here in June 2004, have a watertight defence with goalkeeper Christian Schulte and thirty-year-old Uhlenhorster Hamburg sweeperback with 306 internationals, Philipp Crone.

Roelant Oltmans was a bit tight lipped about his team, Holland. "Let's see how it goes," he said.

Back on the saddle after a brief sixteen-month spell with Pakistan, the man who guided his country to their first Olympic gold in 1996 is looking at penalty corner specialist Taeke Taekema for the big blows with skipper Jeroen Delmee, veteran of 311 internationals, as playmaker.

England, the fourth European team here, has the potential to put up a dogged resistance to any fancied oppositions. The Seoul Olympic winners coached by Jason Lee have the veteran former Klien Zwitzerland's Brett Garrard as captain and Ben Hawes as the principal dragflicker.

However, the main midfield group of Barry Middleton, Glenn Kirkham, Richard Alexander and Andrew West are the heartbeat of the team, and who despite their youth, have shown impressive maturity.

Pakistan, like India, have not causes ripples of late. They have not been able to come even close to filling the vacuum left by Sohail Abbas. The coaches have been grooming both Imran Warsi and Mohammad Imran with the dragflicks but the desired results do not appear to be forthcoming.

Coach Asif Bajwa will be hoping that his forwards Rehan Butt, Shakeel Abbasi, Shabbir Hussain and Mudassar Ali Khan will get going here.

Busan Asiad winners South Korea under new coach Cho Myung Jun are on course to develop a crack squad for the World Cup Qualifiers in China next year. They play the tournament opener against England, followed by the India-Spain match on day one.

The schedule for the Sunday matches is: South Korea v England at 1600 hrs IST, India v Spain at 1830 hrs IST.


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