ISLAMABAD : An automatic Olympic spot will be at stake in the men`s field hockey competition at the Asian Games, where the winner will pocket a ticket to London 2012. Defending champion South Korea starts as favorite but it might be fully tested by two former powerhouses of the sport: archrivals India and Pakistan.
Pakistan selectors have fallen back to veteran penalty corner expert Sohail Abbas after finishing sixth at the Commonwealth Games in coach Michel van den Heuvel`s first international assignment. Abbas was left out from the squad after he opted to play in the Bangladesh League and didn`t join the training camp for the Commonwealth Games.
However, chief selector and former Olympian Hanif Khan met with Abbas after the New Delhi debacle and resolved the situation with the short corner dragflicker. "He is a world-class player and has been given another chance to show his mettle," Khan said.
Abbas, 33, might not be part of the team that competes at London in two year`s time, but he wants to win at least one major title before saying goodbye to the game. "It`s something that is very much on my mind," he said.
India fully capitalized on Pakistan`s weakness on short corners in Abbas` absence at the Commonwealth Games, emerged a 7-4 winner and booking a semifinal place in a crucial last group game. The neighbors and rivals meet again on Nov.
20 in Pool B, which also includes Japan, Bangladesh and Hong Kong. "The match against India will be really crucial for us because it might decide which team from our pool will play against South Korea in the semifinals," captain Zeeshan Ashraf said.
"We won`t let Pakistan down again." Reigning champion South Korea, 2006 silver medalist China, Malaysia, Singapore and Oman form Pool A. India missed the victory podium for the first time at the last Asian Games in Doha, Qatar when it finished fifth.
It also finished eighth at the World Cup at New Delhi in March, but made amends in some ways by winning silver at Commonwealth Games. "We were the best of the three Asian teams that competed in the Commonwealth Games," captain Raj Pal Singh said, referring to Pakistan`s sixth and Malaysia`s eight finish.
Sandeep Singh will be trying to match the short corner skills of Abbas at Guangzhou, while in Shivendra Singh and Arjun Halappa the Indian team contains dangerous strikers. For India`s Spanish coach Jose Brasa, the Asian Games could be his last assignment as he was not sure whether his contract will be renewed.
"It is very important for the boys to win the Asian Games as it would ensure direct qualification (for London)," he told the Hindustan Times. "If they win gold, they will not have to go through the qualifying process.
" Despite placing sixth in this year`s World Cup, South Korea has history on its side at Gunagzhou. It has won gold three times in the last four Asian Games since it broke the Indo-Pak dominance in 1994.
And even with fast improving China in the same pool, it is unlikely South Korea will be seriously challenged until it reaches the semifinal stage. An unpredictable Malaysia which has won the bronze medal three times in Asian Games might vie with China for the other semifinal place from the group.
However, coach Stephen van Huizen wants his team not to repeat the mistakes which pushed the Malaysians down to eighth place at Commonwealth Games. "The team has the ability to play well, but you cannot keep repeating mistakes and hope to win the title," he said.
"South Korea are seen as one of the favorites, therefore, (our) match against China will be crucial.".