Asian Games: Indian Men's Hockey Team Start Olympic Berth Quest vs Uzbekistan
Ranked third in the world, India are the highest-placed side in the continental showpiece.
Eyes firmly trained on Paris Olympics berth, outright favouritesIndia would look to start their Asian Games campaign with a dominant win over lowly-ranked Uzbekistan in their opening Pool A match hon Sunday. Ranked third in the world, India are the highest-placed side in the continental showpiece and it would be a big disappointment if the Harmpanpreet Singh-led side fumbles at Asain Games.
Having returned with a bronze medal from last edition of the Asian Games, the Indians would look for resurrection this time around and, going by their world status and current form, they are sure-shot gold-medal contenders and anything less than that would be a big letdown.
After the historic bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the Indian men's hockey team as it finished a disappointing ninth in the World Cup at home in January this year, which led to the ouster of Australian chief coach Graham Reid.
But the eight-time Olympic champions came back strong under new chief coach Craig Fulton to claim the Asian Champions Trophy title in Chennai last month, which also propelled them to the top-three in world rankings.
The Asian Champions Trophy was a dress rehearsal for the Asian Games as all the top teams of the continent participated in the event and India turned out to be the best side in the tournament.
So, the expectations from the side are always high and new chief coach Fulton is well aware of it.
But he is clear about his goals -- become the No.1 team in Asia and qualify for next year's Paris Olympics, which will give them enough time to prepare for the mega-event.
"I want India to be the No.1 team is Asia. We have to know where we are, where we need to improve and ultimately we want to qualify directly for Paris through the Asian Games, that's the realistic and ultimate goal," Fulton had told PTI.
While India are known for skilful, attacking hockey, Reid's successor Fulton has changed the style a bit, emphasising more on a solid defensive structure and then relying on brisk counter-attacks.
"It's a little bit of philosophy change, we really want to improve our defence and counter-attack to win and that's the philosophy," the South African said.
India have fielded a strong 18-member squad for the Asian Games to be led by talismanic Harmanpreet.
With a world-class drag-flicker in Harmanpreet besides Sanjay, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas in their ranks, India's strength lies in penalty corners and it will be on full display in the Asian Games.
The midfield will be spearheaded by Olympic bronze medal-winning former skipper Manpreet Singh, current vice-captain Hardik Singh and young Vivek Sagar Prasad, while India also boasts of a strong, attacking forwardline in Shamsher Singh, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Abhishek and Sukhjeet Singh.
In veteran PR Sreejesh and the ever-improving Krishan Bahadur Pathak, the Indian citadel is in safe hands.
The Indian men are three-time Asian Games gold medallists, but are only the third-most successful side in the competition, with both Pakistan (8) and Korea (4) having won more yellow metals than them.
Besides India and Uzbekistan, the other teams in Pool A are arch-rivals Pakistan, Singapore, Japan and Bangladesh, while Pool B consists of Korea, Malaysia, China, Oman, Thailand and Indonesia.
After Uzbekistan, against whom they are expected to win hands down, India will face Singapore on September 26, followed by matches against Japan (September 28), Pakistan (September 30) and Bangladesh (October 2).
The match against the world No. 66 side should be a cake-walk for India but they can't afford to let their guard down in a high-stake tournament like this.
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