Ipoh (Malaysia): The loss to New Zealand complicating matters for them, an inconsistent India will take on Malaysia in a do-or-die battle to secure a final berth in their final league fixture of the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here on Friday.
India, who have been unimpressive so far except for the 5-1 victory over arch-rivals Pakistan, need to pull off a victory against Malaysia tomorrow to ensure their place in the final match of the tournament, which they have won five times and were bronze medallists last year.
World champions Australia have already qualified for the final to be played on Saturday with 15 points from five successive wins. India have had an edge in past encounters against Malaysia, who will, however, draw inspiration from their 3-2 win over the Asian Games champions during last year's Sultan Azlan Shah Cup at the same venue.
In the last meeting between these two teams, India shattered Malaysia's hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Games by winning 3-2 in last year's World League Semifinals at Antwerp (Belgium).
Avenging that loss will be on Malaysia's mind, although they have faint hopes of qualifying for the final after being held to a draw by Canada two days ago. The hosts need to defeat India by seven goals to earn a place in the final. A victory over India will enable Malaysia to equal New Zealand's points tally as well as the goal-difference, but the home team will be ahead in goals scored. Otherwise, they can only aspire for a bronze medal.
The tussle for the second spot in the league standings, which will earn a title encounter with Australia, is between India and defending champions New Zealand.
New Zealand, after their 2-1 victory over India, moved into the second place as they finished their six league outings with 11 points, while India are on nine points from five matches.
India's task of clinching a place in the title match is simpler. They just need a victory to finish above New Zealand, who will then have to play for the bronze medal. India raised the level of their game to post a 5-1 victory over Pakistan on Tuesday, but their performance slackened a bit the following day against New Zealand as they lost 1-2 in extremely hot and humid afternoon conditions.
A victory against New Zealand would have secured India a place in the title round with a league game to spare and a livid head coach Roelant Oltmans made no bones about his wards' poor show against the Black Sticks.
"We're keen to make the final, but for getting there we need to produce a good game of hockey against Malaysia tomorrow," said Oltmans.
"Malaysia have exhibited some good hockey, but were unlucky not to get better results," said Oltmans.
Malaysian coach Stephen van Huizen has concerns about injuries sustained by his captain Razie Rahim whose penalty corner conversions have been a key element in Malaysia's good show.
Rahim needed stitches on his lips after Tuesday's match against Canada. The following day, he received a stinging blow on the hand as he brought off a desperate save in the last quarter of the match against Pakistan which the home side won 1-0.
Rahim played a gallant game for Malaysia as they hung on to the fourth-minute lead provided by himself. Van Huizen extolled his team to come out and produce a outstanding show in the last league outing against India tomorrow.
"We'll give it our best and only then look at where we finish," said van Huizen, who conceded that Malaysia did not have very good prospects of qualifying for the final. "We're still a long way off being among the top teams, but we aspire for a sound show against them," said the Malaysia coach.