India face tough German test

Hockey Champions Trophy:Champions Australia, Netherlands and Pakistan too in action on opening day

India face tough German test

Having enjoyed a terrific three-month spell in a long, arduous season, the Indian men’s hockey team will face a stern test of character when the FIH Champions Trophy gets underway here on Saturday.

A month after securing their tickets for the 2016 Rio Olympics in clinching a morale-boosting Asian Games gold, the Indian team flew to Australia where they drubbed the Kookaburras 3-1 in a four-match ‘Test’ series that has instilled plenty of confidence in them.

That new-found self-belief is what they would need in abundance as the weight of history, the recent departure of coach Terry Walsh and a tough pool appear as major obstacles in their dream to do something special at the Kalinga Stadium.

For all their glory of old, the Indian team has struggled to make an impact in the Champions Trophy where the premier teams of the world have been colliding since its inception in 1978. The best the country has managed is a bronze medal in 1982 at Amstelveen.

The modern powerhouses of world hockey -- Australia, Germany and the Netherlands -- have dominated this event, emerging on top in 30 out of 34 editions. While history doesn’t pain an encouraging picture, the fact that they are grouped along with Olympic champions Germany, World Cup silver-medallists Netherlands and bronze medal winners Argentina makes their challenge a tough one.

While all teams advance to the knock-out quarterfinals with the pool games acting to decide the seedings, a poor show could see them taking on a strong side from the other pool containing defending champions Australia, the rapidly improving Belgium, dangerous England and arch-rivals Pakistan.

Despite the departure of Walsh that gave the feeling the team has hit another trough even before relishing the crest it had reached after a long time, the mood in the Indian camp is quite upbeat, thanks to High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans.

The Dutchman, a renowned crisis manager and one of the best tactical minds in the business, hasn't tinkered much with Walsh’s training methods, rather using his own motivating skills to keep the team together and ensuring the focus is on the important job at hand.

The team does hold a good blend of youth and experience in the midfield and defence departments, the only question mark being whether they can rise to the big occasion. As always, midfield maestro Sardar Singh will be crucial to the country’s chances and one hopes his pre-tournament injury heals at the earliest. The largely inexperienced strikers will have to put their hands up and aim for more field goals instead of relying heavily on penalty corners.

The strikers’ inability to make enough inroads was witnessed during the Asian Games and with drag-flickers VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh not finding their destructive range, the team struggled to put many past their only real threat there -- Pakistan.
It’s a no-brainer that industrious Netherlands will be their biggest threat in the group phase with World Cup bronze medal winners Argentina possessing enough ammunition to cause another surprise. After their London Olympics success, Germany have gone off the boil, finishing sixth in the last edition of the Champions Trophy and World Cup respectively.

Group A too will be intensely fought with 13-time winners Australia aiming for an unprecedented sixth straight title. Going through a rebuilding phase, the Kookaburras haven’t had the best of preparations coming here but every hockey fan knows their big match pedigree and how ruthless they can get in major events.

Belgium, the dark horses, appear the most balanced on paper and their performances over the years has seen them rise to fourth in the world rankings now. Pugnacious England will be a force while Pakistan will have to produce something special if they desire to go the distance. That said, the fickle nature of the format means even if a team tops the group but loses the quarterfinal following a bad day, it would be fighting for a classification spot.

Last time, India surprised everyone by topping the group containing Germany before losing to Pakistan in the bronze medal play-off. With a solid crowd expected to egg them on, another encore is a possibility but a tilt at the title seems a dream still.

Today’s ties

* 12:00 pm: Australia vs England (Pool A).
* 2:00 pm: Belgium vs Pakistan (Pool A).
* 5:30 pm: Netherlands vs Argentina (Pool B).
* 7:30 pm: Germany vs India (Pool A).

All matches live on Ten Sports and Ten HD

Teams and stars

Pool A:

Australia: Winners a record 13 times and chasing an unprecedented sixth straight crown, the Aussies are the reigning world champions and the No 1 ranked side as well. However, with quite a few top players retiring after this summer’s World Cup and a side in transition, the Australians will have their task cut out.

Key player: Eddie Ockenden: A gifted midfielder who rarely sends a pass wrong, Ockenden has been the fulcrum in Australia’s swift passing game.

Belgium: One of the most improved sides in modern hockey, Belgium has been reaping the rewards of a system that it put in place around 15 years ago.

Key player: Tom Boon: Just 24 and a big career ahead of him, this tournament offers Boon a chance to create a legacy.

England: Playing this tournament on an invitation, England will be determined to make sure they are not here for sight-seeing. Finished last in the previous Champions Trophy, and fourth at this May’s World Cup.

Key player: Ashley Jackson: Named FIH Young Player of the Year in 2009 – the first from England to receive that honour – Jackson is a dream player for any coach.

Pakistan: For a nation that gave the world two of the major hockey events – World Cup and Champions Trophy – Pakistan’s slide from supremacy has mirrored that of India. Bronze medallists last time, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition at 11th.

Key player: Muhammad Imran: Aged 35, Imran still stands like a rock at the Pakistani defence.

Pool B:

India: Having won the Asian Games gold for the first time in 16 years in October and beating Australia 3-1 in the preceding four-match ‘Test’ series, the Indian team are riding high on the confidence. However, all that will be put through a severe grind with all the top teams in action here.

Key player: Sardar Singh: The skipper is one of the few world class players in the side and the fortunes of the team will be dependent on him.

The Netherlands: With silver medals in the World Cup, Champions Trophy and London Olympics, the Oranje are determined to savour the taste of gold again and win this title for the ninth time.

Key player: Robert van der Horst: The most experienced player in the team, Horst is the director of the Dutch attack.

Germany: Bizarre it may sound but the reigning Olympic champions are playing on an invitation spot here. Since the London triumph, nine-time winners Germany (including as West Germany) have gone off the boil, finishing sixth at the last edition and World Cup respectively.

Key player: Tobias Hauke: 2013’s Player of the Year, midfielder Hauke is a two-time Olympic gold medallist.

Argentina: Los Leones (The Lions) surprised one and all by bagging a shock bronze medal at this year’s World Cup. Relying heavily on team work more than individual brilliances, Argentina can definitely punch above their weights.

Key player: Lucas Vila: With a penchant for scoring some remarkable goals, Vila was the key behind Argentina claiming a bronze medal at the World Cup.

Key facts

* Eight teams have been pitted in two groups with all advancing to the knock-outs. The round-robin matches act a seeding with No 1 team from Pool A locking horns with No 4 team from Pool B and vice-versa. The second and third-placed teams of either groups will also face-off in the quarters.
* Held for the first time in Nov 1978, the Champions Trophy is the brainchild of Air Marshal (retired) Nur Khan, former president of Pakistan Hockey Federation. Nur also donated the first trophy -- won by Pakistan.
Australia is the most successful team with 13 titles.
* Australia, Netherlands, Germany, Pakistan and Spain are the only teams to have tasted Champions League success in 34 editions so far.
Dutch drag-flick legend Taeke Taekema holds the record for the most number of goals scored with 48.
* With 15 strikes at the 1980 edition in Karachi, Netherlands’ Paul Litjens holds the record for most goals scored in a single tournament.
India’s best finish has been a bronze medal in 1982 at Amstelveen.

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