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India take on Egypt in opener

June 28, 2005 20:31 IST

Boasting of four Olympians in their ranks, defending champions India wear the tag of favourites to win the Rabobank Junior Men's World Cup hockey tournament, commencing in Rotterdam, on Wednesday.

The Indians received a shot in the arm a couple of weeks earlier when they convincingly won a four-nation tournament that included the Netherlands, Spain and Chile.

Coach Harendra Singh reflected the high morale and confidence of his team when he expressed optimism of a strong performance in the tournament, much like the Indians did in Hobart, Australia, four years earlier.

"We have a good mix of experience and youth and looking at the draw, I am confident of a good performance here. Of course, our ultimate goal is to win the tournament and retain the title, but, for the moment, I would look one match at a time," he said, on the eve of the tournament that concludes on July 10.

"The four-nation event in Bilbao, Spain, was a heaven-sent opportunity for us. At least our players received some good match practice ahead of the World Cup after our training camp in Hyderabad," the coach added, recalling the 4-3 win against Holland, 3-2 success over Spain and 2-2 draw with Chile.

Apart from the four Olympians -- skipper and goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza, defenders Sandeep Singh and William Xalco and forward Adam Sinclair -- half-backs V S Vinay and Vivek Gupta, and forwards Tushar Khandekar and Hari Prasad, took part in the 2004 Champions Trophy at Lahore, and these youngsters have greatly benefited by the exposure at the senior level.

The Indians were finalists in the 1997 edition at Milton Keyenes, England, where they lost to Australia in the title round. India came good at Hobart with a huge win against Argentina in the final after surviving a few hiccups in the earlier rounds.

These results indicate the strength and depth of the Indian juniors, though at the senior level, few have really made a lasting impression.

The double-leg format with a twin-league system followed by the knockout semi-finals and final, gives all the top-ranking teams an even shot at the trophy.

However, considering the length of the tournament, it might boil down to a team's staying power as much as inherent skills.

In this context, Harendra said his team is injury-free and the week-long training camp in Frankfurt, Germany, prior to their arrival in Rotterdam provided the players an ideal build-up to the tournament featuring 16 teams.

India are clubbed with the Netherlands, Poland and Egypt in Pool D for the preliminary league. With three teams from each of the four pools to progress to the next round, the Indians are expected to make the grade.

For round two, the 12 teams will be divided into two groups of six while carrying forward the points they had earned in the preliminary league. In the second round, teams will play opponents whom they had not met in the previous phase.

The two top teams from each group will advance to the knock-out semi-finals.

The Indians begin their campaign with an outing against Egypt on Wednesday and take on Poland the following day. After a day's break, the Dutch will be India's next opponents.

"Egypt have always been tough opponents. They tend to pack their defence and we have to use all our skills to breakthrough. But I am confident of a good showing," said Harendra, his statement tinged with obvious caution, keeping in mind India's traditional opening match blues.

The acid test for all teams will be in the second round where the competition would be at its height and the key factor to success might come down to playing consistent hockey.

While India, the Netherlands and Poland are expected to qualify for Round 2 from Pool D, Spain, England and Korea from Pool A, Germany and Argentina from Pool B, and Australia and Pakistan from Pool C, are considered certainties for the next phase.

It is whispered that Spain would be the team to watch, much more than the traditional powerhouses such as four-time winners Germany, Holland, Pakistan and Australia. Spain have five players who were part of the Champions Trophy-winning squad last year in Pakistan.

Likewise, Pakistan, led by Shakeel Abbasi, too boast of a surfeit of talent that has already been exposed to senior competition and they would be keen to emulate their predecessors who won the inaugural event in 1979 at Verssailes.

The pools for preliminary league (FIH rankings in brackets):

Pool A: Spain (1), England (8), Korea (9), Mexico (16).

Pool B: Germany (2), Argentina (7), South Africa (10), Malaysia (15).

Pool C: Australia (3), Pakistan (6), Belgium (11), Chile (14).

Pool D: India (4), The Netherlands (5), Poland (12), Egypt (13).

Wednesday's matches (all timings IST):
 Australia vs Chile (2.30 pm)
 Korea vs Mexico (3.30 pm)
 Pakistan vs Belgium (5 pm)
 Spain vs England (6 pm)
 India vs Egypt (7.30 pm)
 Germany vs Argentina (8.30 pm)
 South Africa vs Malaysia (10 pm)
 Netherlands vs Poland (11 pm).

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