Ipoh: With medal hopes hanging in the balance, India’s hockey team will take on traditional rivals Pakistan in a Sultan Azlan Shah Cup encounter here on Tuesday.
Five-time winners India finished with a bronze last year and have already won two out of their three encounters in the tournament, beating Japan (2-1) and Canada (3-1).
India have six points, two more than fourth-placed Canada. Australia are on top of the table with three wins from as many games, while New Zealand are second on the table with eight points from four matches.
The top two teams will automatically qualify for the final, while the third and fourth ranked teams play the bronze medal match after the conclusion of the round-robin competition.
However, they have not put in the performances that had pleased fans and critics, alike. They have been scrappy and scratchy. The chinks in their defence were fully exposed by current world champions Australia, who scored five times.
Head coach Roelant Oltmans has a young team that hasn’t been consistent so far. Especially, in the absence of P.R. Sreejesh, greenhorns Harjot Singh and Akash Chitke’s performances will cause a lot of worry to Oltmans, considering the high-octane clash with their neighbours.
Midfielder and skipper Sardar Singh is probably India’s strongest point and he will have to play a crucial role if the former champions are to perform creditably in this tournament.
Wingers S.V. Sunil and Danish Mujtaba have the speed and experience to trouble almost any defence and with Sardar pulling the strings in the centre of midfield, strikers Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah should have plenty of opportunities to score.
Pakistan on the other hand, have won just one game, beating Canada 3-1 before losing to New Zealand and Australia. They are currently sixth in the standings.
Pakistan haven’t qualified for the Olympics in Rio this year, but are high on motivation to edge past their sub-continental rivals in Malaysia.
The two teams last faced each other at the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Finals in Antwerp, with the game ending 2-2. India went on to the semi-finals of the event, while Pakistan’s hopes of Olympic qualification were dashed by a loss to Ireland.
As it is with India-Pakistan encounters, the latest edition promises fine, skilful, attractive hockey. India’s strengths lie in their penalty corner conversion, with youngster Harmanpreet Singh grabbing his debut chance in the senior team with both hands. The drag-flicker already has two goals in the tournament. Apart from him, Rupinder Pal Singh is also there.
A win for India will see them make a strong case to enter the medal rounds, while a loss for Pakistan will more or less knock them out of contention.
In the other matches of the day, Australia will face title holders New Zealand in a match that will most probably determine the top spot, while Canada will be up against hosts Malaysia.