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India face tough World Cup opener
September 05, 2006 15:20 IST
Placed in a tough pool that includes holders Germany and Champions Trophy winners the Netherlands, the Indian hockey team is set to begin their campaign in the 11th World Cup for men, in Monchengladbach on Wednesday.
With a refurbished team and a new coach in Vasudevan Baskaran, Dilip Tirkey-led India will play Germany in their opening pool B league fixture.
The Indians have been through a testing period since finishing 10th at the 2002 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the scene of their only triumph back in 1975.
"The players are motivated and we hope to do well here. Realistically, our target is to qualify for the semi-finals," said Baskaran.
Since Baskaran took charge of the team earlier this year, the team has had little international matchplay and this is something the coach is conscious of.
"If I had more time, then we would have been better prepared," he said.
A four-nation tournament in Germany followed by the Azlan Shah Cup competition in Kuala Lumpur have been the only preparatory events for India, besides the three warm-up games since their arrival in Germany.
Even before the Indians left for the World Cup, they suffered a huge setback when their key player and penalty corner specialist Sandeep Singh was injured in a freak accident.
"His absence will be felt, but then, we need to look forward," said Baskaran.
The Indians have included rookie V Ramachandra Raghunath from Kodagu, Karnataka, as Sandeep's replacement. For this youngster, it is a huge leap from the junior ranks. He was selected from among the three probables who were tried in the matches with Belgium and Japan.
India's approach in the league phase would be to drop as few points as possible, but their route to qualification for the semi-finals has two big hurdles in Germany and the Netherlands, the teams that India have never beaten in the World Cup.
The Germans have rebuilt a strong side after winning the 2002 edition and boast of a team that has a good mix of youth and experience. They would be keen to present a farewell gift to their coach Bernhard Peters who is to move to football at the end of this World Cup.
But it is the Dutch that look the hot favourites to win their fourth World Cup, a record that would tie them with Pakistan. They have been on a roll this year, winning the Azlan Shah Cup, the Champions Trophy and the four-Nation Hamburg Masters.
With two veterans, skipper Jerome Delmee and Teun de Nooijer, both playing their fourth and last World Cup, in their ranks, the Dutch appear all primed to take home the Cup on September 17.
Among other contenders, Spain and Australia, like the Dutch and the Germans, are front-runners for the title. Spain, who are without Juan Pablo Escarre, who led them to their only Champions Trophy title in 2004 and the European championship in 2005, still look a team to beat with the crafty coach Maurits Hendricks prompting them.
Likewise, Australia too appear strong on paper, but there is a question mark over their "big match temperament" that has often seen them collapsing in the World Cup finals, just like they did four years ago, losing to Germany in extra-time.
However, the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens has boosted the team that will be without their key striker Grant Schubert, who was injured just before the team's departure to Europe.
Pakistan would be spearheading the Asian challenge that also includes 2002 semi-finalists Korea. But Pakistan's recent record has been far from impressive, especially after the departure of their coach Roelant Oltmans (currently handling the Netherlands) last year. The green shirts can be handful on their day, though their current form hardly inspires confidence.
The same could be said of the Koreans whose thrust and speed can rip open the best of defences. However, at best, they could be classified as the tournament's 'dark horses'.
Pool A - Argentina, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan and Spain.
Pool B - England, Germany, India, Korea, the Netherlands and South Africa.
Wednesday's fixtures (IST): Germany vs India (7 pm); Argentina vs New Zealand (10 pm); Korea vs the Netherlands (12 midnight).