India need to be cautious against unpredictable Malaysia
Brimming with confidence after three consecutive wins, India will have to guard against complacency when they take on hosts Malaysia, a side which is capable of springing up surprises, in the semifinal of the ninth Asia Cup hockey tournament here tomorrow.
Unlike their opponents, the Indians will be high on confidence after securing their semifinal berth with an unbeaten record. The Sardar Singh-led side spanked debutants Oman 8-0, followed by wins over defending champions South Korea (2-0) and Bangaldesh (9-1) to top Pool B.
Malaysia, on the other hand, finished second in Pool A after they won against Chinese Taipei and Japan but lost to Pakistan in their Pool A engagements.
Fully aware that two more wins here would ensure their ticket for next year's World Cup at The Hague, Netherlands, the 11th ranked Indians cannot afford to relax in the business end of the eight-nation tournament, and especially against an unpredictable side like Malaysia.
India, who never missed out on a World Cup berth since the tournament's introduction in 1971, will like to avoid the repeat of yet another debacle after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the Indian team had failed to qualify for the first time in the history of the game.
Having played Malaysia on numerous occasions, the Indians, who start as favourites, know very well that the hosts on their given day can upset top teams of the world.
Another factor which will work against India in the semifinal is home support. Come tomorrow the Malaysians would be backed by a vociferous home crowd, a fact which India captain Sardar Singh admitted.
"It is a very crucial match for us in the recent times. Malaysia is tough opponent. You cannot predict them. We will have to play against the entire stadium tomorrow as they will have home support behind them," Sardar told PTI ahead of the semifinal encounter.
"But we are completely focussed on our job. We know we have to win and we are confident of pulling it across," he said.
On the game front, the Indians have impressed all and sundry so far in the tournament and would be hoping to carry on the momentum in the final two games.
As always captain Sardar Singh has been a rock in India's midfield under whose shadow youngsters like Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana Singh and S K Uthappa have blossomed.
India's young and inexperienced forwardline too have managed to live up to the expectations so far.
In the absence of quartet of Danish Mujtaba, SV Sunil, Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Akashdeep Singh -- all out of the tournament due to injuries, India fielded a young, untested forwardline for this tournament.
But the likes of Mandeep Singh, Nithin Thimmaiah, Malak Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah rose to the occasion and did not let anyone feel the vacuum created by the injuries to senior players.
Young Mandeep, in particular, is in superb form and so far scored four goals in the tournament.
But India's interim coach Roelant Oltmans would be most happy with the fact that after making a slow start his dragflickers have finally joined the party.
India's penalty corner exponents Rupinderpal Singh and V R Raghunath slammed hat-tricks each against Bangladesh in their last pool match. In fact, Rupinder went on to score four goals in the match as India converted six out of the 10 short corners they earned in the game.
"We converted 60 per cent of our penalty corners and that is a very high rate. I am happy with their (Rupinder and Raghunath) performance. It's a very good percentage," Oltmans said.
On the goalkeeping front, P R Sreejesh is in rollicking form and against Korea he made as many as six-seven clear saves, which included some acrobatic efforts.
Oltmans, however, cautioned his wards ahead of the all-important semifinal tie against Malaysia.
"It is fantastic to play Malaysia. I am looking forward to that game. It will be a very tight game," he said.
"There is no pressure, we enjoy playing hockey. I told my players if you feel pressure give it to me. I will take it, you just play hockey."
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal of the tournament, Pakistan will lock horns against title hoders South Korea.