Korea test awaits India in Asia Cup
Ipoh (Malaysia): Their campaign off to a flying start, under-pressure India will face a litmus test when they take on defending champions South Korea in their second Pool B match of the ninth Asia Cup hockey tournament here on Monday.
India, who desperately need to win the Asia Cup to qualify for next year`s World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands, started their campaign on a rousing note, thumping minnows Oman 8-0 in their opening pool match at the Sultan Azlan Shah stadium on Saturday.
But it won`t be a stroll in the park for the 11th-ranked Indians against the quicksilver South Koreans, who will desperate to assert their supremacy in the eight-nation event by defending their title here.
Having already qualified for the World Cup after being promoted from first reserves to guaranteed participants recently, courtesy Argentina`s title win in the Pan American continental championship, the Koreans will look to spoil the party of arch-rivals India and Pakistan.
For the eight-time Olympic champions, India, and neighbours Pakistan, it is a do-or-die situation as one of them faces the prospect of missing out on a World Cup berth for the first time since the launch of the tournament in 1971.
But having made a bright start to the tournament, the Indians would be hoping to carry on the momentum in the coming matches.
In the absence of the quartet of Danish Mujtaba, SV Sunil, Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Akashdeep Singh -- all out of the tournament due to injuries --, the inexperienced Indian forwardline comprising Mandeep Singh, Nithin Thimmaiah, Malak Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah impressed all and sundry against Oman on Saturday.
Young Mandeep scored three field goals against Oman while debutant Ramandeep and Malak also shone brightly with their sticks.
The most heartening thing about the victory over Oman was that India scored five field goals. The midfield led, by inspirational captain Sardar Singh, and the forwardline combined well and concentrated on building formations against Oman.
And India would look to play on similar lines against Korea tomorrow, albeit with a few changes in the strategy as indicated by interim coach Roelant Oltmans.
"There would be a few changes in terms of strategy (against Korea) but I won`t reveal what re they," Oltmans said after the win against Oman.
However, India`s backline, which is the team`s perennial problem, was not tested against Oman and it remains to be seen how the likes of V R Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh, debutant Amit Rohidas, Kothajit Singh, Birendra Lakra and Gurmail Singh fare under constant pressure of the nimble-footed Koreans.
With hardly anything to do against Oman, vice-captain and goalkeeper P R Sreejesh will be up for some tough time against the Koreans on Monday.
Going by the overall head-to-head record between the two teams, Korea have a clear upperhand. Out of the 68 encounters between the two countries so far, Korea have won 30 while India emerged victorious in 26 matches with 12 games ending in draws.
But in the Asia Cup two-time champions India boast of a superior record. Out of the eight matches in the tournament between the two nations, India have won five, lost two while one ended in a draw.
The road to the semifinals, however, is not much of a problem for India. India are placed in a relatively easy Pool B alongside Korea, Bangladesh and Oman while Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan and Chinese-Taipei complete the Pool A line-up.
A win on Monday against Korea would guarantee India`s place in the semifinals, but a draw would also be enough to see them through as the Sardar Singh-led side will play minnows Bangladesh in their last pool engagement.
India`s interim coach Oltmans too admitted that Korea would be a tough nut to crack.
"There is no doubt about the fact that Korea is a very tough opponent. They showed that by becoming the first Asian team to qualify for the World Cup," he had said.
"We have to play at least as good as we played against Oman or may be even better against Korea," added Oltmans, who is also the High Performance Director of Hockey India.
Barring the goalkeepers -- Sreejesh and P T Rao -- who had a session with goalkeeping coach Dave Staniforth, the Indians have an off day on Sunday as the team management has given the players time to recover ahead of the all-important Korea clash.