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Indian hockey team faces stiff challenge
June 22, 2007 19:44 IST
A revamped India renew their bid to get back into the elite bracket of world hockey when they begin their campaign in the six-nation FIH Champions Challenge tournament with a game against New Zealand [Images] in Antwerp, Belgium, on Saturday.
Coach Joaquim Carvalho expressed confidence that his wards would deliver the goods even if some tough contests are on the cards.
"The stakes are obviously high as this tournament gives us a chance to qualify for the 2008 Champions Trophy and also a favourable draw for the Olympic qualifying tournament next year.
"It is going to be a tough competition, but I am confident of a strong showing here," Carvalho said after the team's arrival in Antwerp on Thursday night following a 10-day training sojourn in Germany [Images].
Also at stake are valuable FIH ranking points. India, winners of the inaugural Champions Challenge tournament in 2001, are currently ranked eighth with 1,293 points, behind Argentina (7th, 1,325) and followed by England [Images] (9th, 1,249), New Zealand (10th, 1,220), Japan [Images] (12th, 825) and Belgium (13th, 801).
"There is plenty to gain by doing well in this tournament that I feel is the most significant outing for us. We need to get back into the top six as that will open up doors of opportunity to compete against the best in the world and that is the best way forward," Carvalho said. After the World Cup debacle last year, when India sank to 11th among 12 teams in Mochengladbach, Germany, the team underwent a wholesale change, beginning with coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran, whom Carvalho replaced.
A third place at the eight-nation Azlan Shah Cup tournament has raised hopes of a revival for India and Carvalho said the team is keen to continue with its fine form.
"The bronze in Malaysia was certainly a big boost for the team and hopefully we will be able to sustain the momentum by finishing at the top here," he said.
However, the Indians cannot expect an easy run. Four of the five teams they face -- New Zealand, England, Argentina and Japan -- finished ahead of India at the 2006 World Cup. Hosts Belgium is the lowest ranked team in the fray.
Carvalho pointed out that the teams at the Champions Challenge would be more motivated and at full strength unlike in the Azlan Shah competition where all the sides opted to field younger players.
He said despite being the most skillful outfit, his team has to give its best against some power-packed sides in the tournament.
"Every game is important for us and, hopefully, our players will rise to the occasion. There will be no easy outings for sure. We may be more skillful than the others, but it will take much more than that to get past teams like England, New Zealand and Argentina.
"We will be up against different styles of play and highly motivated opposition that will be as keen as us to make it to Champions Trophy," he said.
Besides New Zealand and England, the Indians run into Argentina, who would be keen to wipe off the 3-0 rout in Malaysia when the teams last met. With the experienced Jorge Lombi back in the squad, Argentina would be seeking to regain their spot in the Champions Trophy.
The tournament is being played on a round robin basis, after which the teams would be involved in a play-off for final classification.
Saturday's fixtures (IST): India vs New Zealand (17.15); Belgium vs Japan (1930); England vs Argentina (2200).