Under-pressure India eye morale-boosting opener against Oman

Ipoh: The ignominy of missing out on a World Cup berth looming large over its head, an under-pressure Indian men`s hockey team would be hoping to open its campaign in the ninth Asia Cup with a morale-boosting win over minnows Oman in Pool B, here on Saturday.

Well aware that it is their last chance to qualify for 2014 FIH World Cup, the Indians cannot afford to let their guards down at any moment as nothing short of a victory in the continental championship can book their ticket to next year`s quadrennial event in The Hague, Netherlands.

For the eight-time Olympic champions India and neighbours Pakistan, the Asia Cup is a do-or-die tournament 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.

Defending champions South Korea, however, can heave a sigh of relief as they recently became the eighth team to qualify for the World Cup after being promoted from first reserves to guaranteed participants, courtesy Argentina`s title win in the Pan American continental championship.

India would also be looking to obliterate the memories of their disappointing performance in the last edition of the Asia Cup held in Kuantan, Malaysia in 2009, where they finished a disappointing fifth in a seven-team contest.

Considering the huge demand at stake, it would prove be a Herculean task for India to finish at the top of the podium.

To add to it, the failure to qualify for the World Cup will be a big embarrassment for the Indians who will be desperate to avoid the 2008 Beijing Olympics debacle.

However, the road to the semifinals should not be much of a problem for India. They are placed in a relatively easy Pool B along side Korea, Bangladesh and Oman while Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia and Chinese-Taipei complete the Pool A line-up.

India are expected to start as overwhelming favourites against Oman at the Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium here, and a comprehensive win will undoubtedly lift the team`s spirit ahead of its tough second pool encounter against title holders Korea on August 26. The Indians will round off their pool engagements against Bangladesh on August 28.

Injuries to some key players in the build up to the tournament did not help India either. Plagued by injuries, India were forced to field a young but depleted 18-member squad under inspirational Sardar Singh for the Asia Cup.

India's forwardline resembles a depleted look in the absence of Danish Mujtaba, S V Sunil, Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Akashdeep Singh -- all of whom are out of the tournament due to injuries.

In Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah the Indian forwardline has two debutants. Other strikers -- Nithin Thimmaiah, Mandeep Singh and Malak Singh -- too do not have much experience under their belt.

The Indian mid-field, led by Sardar, has a lot more experience and will be the key to success.

The backline, however, remains India's perennial problem and it would be interesting to see how the likes of V R Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh, debutant Amit Rohidas, Kothajit Singh, Birendra Lakra and Gurmail Singh fare in such pressure situations.

Under the goalpost, P R Sreejesh too will feel extra burden having been handed over the vice-captain's role from Raghunath.

It also remains to be seen how the Indians adopt a new style of hockey -- quite different from what they have been playing under former chief coach Michael Nobbs of Australia.

After Nobbs' ouster, the Indian men's team is under the
watchful eyes of legendary Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, who is doubling up as Hockey India's High Performance Director as well as interim coach.

So, it will be the first real test for Oltmans and the Dutchman too seemed up for the challenge.

Oltmans is doing his bid to take the pressure off his wards and said being the interim coach he would be solely responsible for India's performance in the Asia Cup.

"I'll be responsible for the team's performance but at the same time I'm confident also," Oltmans had said.

"We have prepared ourselves in the best possible manner in the short period of time we had. We can assure all that we will give our 100 per cent every single minute and in every single game we play.

"If we are able to produce good performances on a consistent basis there (in Ipoh), we can win the tournament," he insisted.

In Pool A, Pakistan will open their campaign against Japan, while hosts Malaysia will face Chinese Taipei in the last match of the opening day.

For records, Pakistan and Korea have won the Asia Cup three times each, while India have won it twice at Kuala Lumpur in 2003 and at Chennai in 2007.