Medal chance at stake as India take on Pak in Azlan Shah today
With medal hopes at stake, a scrappy India will have to lift their game by leaps and bounds when they take on sub-continental rivals Pakistan in the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here on Tuesday, in what promises to be an intense encounter.
Five-time winners of the tournament, India were bronze medalists last year and are eager to stay in medal contention. But the Sardar Singh-led side, which features several youngsters, will have to raise its game by many fold after surviving a torrid time against Canada on Sunday.
India’s 3-1 victory over Canada has placed them third in the round-robin league standings with six points from three outings, while Pakistan have three points from as many matches. Pakistan’s lone win came against Canada by a similar margin.
World champions Australia are leading the standings with a maximum nine points from three consecutive victories, while defending champions New Zealand are on eight points from four matches.
The intense hockey rivalry between the two teams has always attracted immense interest. Despite slumping from their position as top hockey nations, an India-Pakistan encounter never fails to be a showstopper at any tournament. The silver jubilee edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup will see the spotlight focused on the sub-continental encounter even as World no 1 Australia take on title holders New Zealand in another fixture the same day.
“The whole of India is waiting for the next game, but I keep telling the boys that this is just another game,” said India’s chief coach Roelant Oltmans.
“We should maintain focus on our game just like in any other match. We have a tough schedule starting with the match against Pakistan,” said the Dutchman.
Pakistan coach Khwaja Junaid, a former international, wants his players to display their skills and control the emotions when they play India on Tuesday. “The match against India will be a turnover game,” said Junaid. “The team that manages to defend the counter-attacks better will have an edge. We are now trying to rebuild our squad. What is important is that we follow our game-strategy, play in a structure and show unity in the field,” he said.
Junaid said Pakistan had brought eight young players from the squad that recently won the South Asian Games gold medal defeating India in the final.
India did not field its main squad in the South Asian Games and the top players were then playing in the cash-rich Hockey India League and were allowed to skip the tournament. The last match in a top-notch event featuring full-strength Indian and Pakistani sides was in the Hockey World League Semifinals in Antwerp last year, which ended in a 2-2 draw. India went on to advance to the knock-out round of that tournament, while Pakistan’s hopes of securing qualification for the Olympic Games were dashed after they lost to Ireland.