Stern test awaits India

With big events lined up, Marijne's men eager to step it up

Stern test awaits India

Having passed a relatively comfortable induction programme in flying colours, India coach Sjoerd Marijne will face a much sterner examination when the Hockey World League Final, featuring the top eight teams, kicks off here on Friday.

Within weeks of being named as Roelant Oltmans' successor, Marijne, despite the lack of preparation time, eased himself into the hot seat as India lifted the Asia Cup in Dhaka for a third time. While that victory sort of silenced the doubters temporarily on whether Marijne - not a high profile name in world hockey - is the right man to coach the national team considering the four major events that are lined up next year, the World League Final presents an opportunity for the Dutchman to show that he can indeed inspire his wards to greater glory.

The Indians, who have often been found wanting in premier events for the last two decades, have slowly begun to make an impact against the big guns in the last few years. They claimed a bronze medal in the 2015 edition of this event and surprised everyone with a first-ever silver medal in the Champions Trophy last year.

With this tournament having a very quirky format where the pool games are almost irrelevant as all eight teams advance to the knockout quarterfinals, the Indians will be eyeing a charge at the medal. They know, just like the other teams, they need to win just three knock-out games to emerge champions with two victories guaranteeing a silver.

Having said that, the Indians, who have indeed improved on the fitness and temperament front, will want to give a good account of themselves in this season-ender -- the biggest test event for the hectic year ahead and a great opportunity for the players to make a name for themselves.

Defenders Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra, both returning from injuries, and striker S V Sunil are the senior-most members in a side brimming with youthful exuberance. Members from the 2016 Junior World Cup winning side and a few others from the junior camp have been included and they would be eager to grab it with both hands.

The spotlight will be on three rising stars - Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Dipsan Tirkey. The trio formed the defensive bedrock of the Junior World Cup side and although they stepped up to the plate during the European tour and Asia Cup, playing against the elite in almost every game will be a wonderful learning experience.

Young skipper Manpreet Singh will take up the all-important play-making role along with his deputy Chinglensana Singh while the seasoned Sunil has exciting Akashdeep Singh, talented Mandeep Singh and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay for company up front.

India's record against the big teams over the last two decades hasn't been anything to shout home about and this team won't find it easy to correct that. Favourites to land the spoils are Argentina and Belgium, two teams that fought in the final of the Rio Olympics last year. Argentina, No 1 in the world and reigning Olympic champions, have arrived here with a great blend of youth and experience while Belgium, who have beaten fellow European heavyweights the Netherlands and Germany in the recent past, will be determined to break a major title jinx.

Defending champions Australia, the modern-day powerhouse, have hit a rough patch over the last year that saw them finish a shocking sixth at Rio. The world champions would be keen to atone for that rare failure and re-establish their supremacy.

Inaugural champions the Netherlands and Germany will also be hungry to top the podium. The Oranje have a squad oozing with talent in every department and it would be a huge underachievement if they sign off without a medal. Germany, welcoming the return of three big stars, are always industrious and known to shine on the big stage.

England and Spain are the underdogs and like India will be banking on pluck and some luck to ride the distance.

Friday's matches: Germany vs England (4:45 pm).

India vs Australia (7:30 pm).  Telecast: Live on Star Spors 1 & HD

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