Rotterdam: With their eyes firmly set on next year`s World Cup, a new-look India will start as overwhelming favourites against minnows Ireland in their opening match of the men`s competition of the FIH World League Round 3, here on Thursday.
However, it won`t be easy for the Indians as they have been grouped alongside mighty Netherlands and New Zealand apart from Ireland in Pool B of the World League Round 3 (Semi-final), which is a qualifying tournament for next year`s World Cup in Hague.
Pool A consists of Australia, Spain, Belgium and Germany.
Currently ranked 11th in the world, eight-time Olympic champions India enjoy an upper hand over 15th ranked Ireland who will start the game as underdogs in the event to be held from June 13-23.
The Indian team for the World League Round 3 is a fine combination of youth and experience with senior drag-flicker Sandeep Singh and forward Shivendra Singh making their comeback into the national squad.
Sandeep, who was left out of the Indian squad for the FIH Hockey World League Round 2 held here earlier this year, returned to the national side along with Shivendra, who last played for India in last year`s London Olympics.
Sandeep, incidentally, was a part of the Indian squad that went to The Netherlands in April for an invitational tour.
Star mid-fielder Sardar Singh will lead the 18-member Indian team, while drag-flicker V R Raghunath has been named his deputy.
However, India will miss the services of midfielder Danish Mujtaba and Gurvinder Singh Chadi, both of whom have been ruled out of the tournament due to injuries.
While Gurvinder continues to be in the sidelines because of a prolonged ankle injury, Danish is suffering from a ligament tear.
A winning start against Ireland will be a big boost for the Indians as they will take on hosts, The Netherlands in their next game on Saturday, followed by their last Pool B game against New Zealand on June 17.
Indian Hockey`s High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans had already said that India need to put up a "confident and consistent" performance to secure one of the three automatic World Cup berths up for grabs in the FIH World League Round 3.
"The men`s competition is really very tough but the players should be confident about their abilities. And if we can show that confidence in a consistent basis, there is no reason why we shouldn`t qualify from here. I can assure you that we will fight our hearts out to be among the three top teams," Oltmans had said.
Three teams each will qualify directly for next year`s World Cup from the two World League Round 3 (Semi-final) events. They will be joined by five continental champions and the host nation.
"Our focus should be to qualify directly either through World League Round 3 or Asia Cup," Oltmans insisted.
Oltmans, who also coached the Netherlands and Pakistan hockey teams, opined that Rotterdam-bound Indian team is a fine mixture of youth and experience.
"In Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh, we have some promising youngsters in our forward line while Shivendra (Singh) will lend experience to them," he said.
"We also have best penalty corner specialists in the world in Sandeep, V R Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh."
India`s chief coach Michael Nobbs also agreed with Oltmans that the competition in the upcoming event would be tough.
"The competition is pretty tough. All the teams will want to qualify but we are absolutely keen and we will give it our best shot," he said.
India captain Sardar Singh feels physically as well as mentally they are ready for the upcoming challenge.
"Our chances are there but we need to play tough hockey. We need to concentrate, we shouldn`t give away easy ball," Sardar said.
Meanwhile, the Indian eves will also feature in the women`s competition of the World League Round 3 where they have been clubbed alongside Germany, New Zealand and Belgium.
Rated as underdogs in a tough Pool B, the Indian women`s team led by Ritu Rani will open the campaign against New Zealand on Thursday, followed by games against Belgium on Friday and Germany on Sunday.
The other competing nations in the women`s event are hosts Netherlands, Korea, Japan and Chile who are placed in Pool A.