Hockey India's high performance director Roelant Oltmans has set his sights on winning the gold medal in this year's Incheon Asian Games which would give the erstwhile champions of the game a direct ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Oltmans said the senior men's team showed signs of improvement during the just-concluded Hockey World League Final, where the host nation led by Sardar Singh stunned Olympic champions Germany 5-4 in their classification match and also put up a good show against Belgium, though they lost the game in the closing minutes of play.
"The aim would be to do good this year given the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Cup and Champions Trophy. The year is important for Indian hockey. My most important priority is the Incheon Asian Games because that would act as a direct qualifier to the 2016 Rio Olympics. We are looking to get direct qualification," Oltmans told PTI in an interview.
"We put up a good show against Germany and beat them in a classification match. It's a great morale booster. Obviously, we wanted to finish higher in the tournament but we are getting closer to our aim, which is to improve as a team. The team is adapting to the changing coaching strategies. We played some good hockey in parts in the HWL Final. We have to learn from these matches," he said.
India finished sixth ahead of Germany and Argentina in the HWL Final and Oltmans said his wards' performance in the eight-nation event showed that the team was moving in the right direction.
"We are not among the higher-ranked teams in the world but surely we are improving. I am happy where we are at the moment. The people of this country wants good performance from its hockey team on a consistent basis and for that we have to do well. It's about consistently performing against the best teams.
"We are on the right path and we are showing signs of improvement. We can't predict the outcome when we enter into a tournament but the aim is always to do well. We have progressed as a hockey team and I am sure that in a couple of years' time, we would be able to win medals," he said.
Placed 10th in the FIH rankings, the Indians had plenty of positives to take from this tournament as the sixth place finish will definitely give a major boost to their world rankings.
The relatively young Indian team had also held Germany to a 3-3 draw in the pool stages before beating them in the 5-8th place play-off game.
India had also started brilliantly against world champions Australia in the quarterfinal and took a 2-0 lead before running out of steam and finally losing 2-7.
Against fifth ranked Belgium, India had taken the lead in the 59th minute before conceding two late goals to lose the encounter.
As the talks veered towards the upcoming Hockey India League, where Oltmans would be seen as head coach of the last year's semi-finalists Uttar Pradesh Wizards, the Dutchman said the aim would be to reach the last-four stage of the tournament.
"We have a good mix of experience and youth. The aim would be to reach the semi-finals and then we will see. It would be important to approach the tournament game by game, making the strategy match by match," he said.
Uttar Pradesh Wizards will open their campaign against Ranchi Rhinos in an away tie on January 26.
The UP team has signed up seven new players for this season in Ramandeep Singh (India), Nikkin Thimmaiah (India), Harmanpreet Singh (India), Jasjit Singh Kular (India), Iain Wallace Lewers (UK), Hugo Reid Inglis (New Zealand) and Shea Joseph Mc Aleese (New Zealand).
Oltmans said the preparations are going on in full swing and players are gelling up well with each other.
"The preparation is going on great. We have signed up seven new players for this season and that's a good news for the franchise. These signings would definitely bring new dynamics to the franchise. Boys are getting to know each other."
The veteran coach said the team is currently working on finding a right combination of players.
"We are searching for the right combination. We have 24 players and all are very good. We have to look at it depending on the game situation. The scheduling is tough and it's a big challenge for us. We have to be prepared in the best possible way," he signed off.