With the World Cup just round the corner, Indian men's hockey team chief coach Terry Walsh is realistic about his ward's chances and said his main "objective is to finish in the top 8" in the mega-event and anything higher than that will be a "big bonus".
Fresh from a preparatory tour to Europe, Walsh however believed India can climb up to the top six position by the end of 2014.
"The FIH World Cup is the second most important event after the Olympic Games. So every team is going to be prepared. Our objective is to finish in the top 8 and should we finish higher than that it will be a big bonus," Walsh said in an interview after returning from a tour to The Hague, The Netherlands where the World Cup will be held from May 31 to June 15.
"But I think by the end of the year, by the time we get to the Champions Trophy we should be shooting for a top 6 position in the world. I think that's very realistic," he said.
Walsh said for a team like India a positive start will play a crucial role in a big tournament like the World Cup.
"More importantly, we will strive to improve the level of our performance at the international stage. Anything can happen at the World Cup, we could end up with a very outstanding performance.
"I think the first few games will be really critical. In this World Cup I believe the first game against Belgium will be extremely crucial in deciding our final outcome," the Australian said.
During the just-concluded tour to Europe, India defeated Leiden Hockey Club 7-0 and drew 3-3 draw with HGC Hockey Club before losing 1-2 to Belgium, 2-4 and 1-2 to The Netherlands in their remaining build-up games.
Asked about the importance of the tour, he said it helped in growing "self-belief" in the Sardar Singh-led side.
"It was good, we had the opportunity to play Holland on the pitch, not exactly the same but same style of surface, that will be at the World Cup. We had an idea about the European umpiring, European style of playing.
"Overall, I think we grew during this tour and we will continue to grow in the rest of the year. Now we have a squad of players who have self belief. If we play effectively and to our requirement then we can be very competitive against any opponent. Physically, now we are just about at par with our opponents," Walsh said.
"We have always known skills were there but the most important thing is that we now have self belief. The players now know how to handle crucial moments professionally and that puts us in a good position leading upto the World Cup.
"In my view it is a revitalized Indian team." While 18 players were part of the Europe tour, 14 missed out but are very much in contention for a place in the World Cup-bound squad.
"We have managed to achieve many of the requirements we have set for the tour. I think the quality of game of the players in this tour is going to make the selection of final squad very difficult. We have got 14 players here who didn't go for the tour and they also will be fighting hard for a place in the team," Walsh said.
"All of these players came up with performances to be in the fray for the World Cup. It's about choosing the best of the lot.
"It's hard to pick the players who haven't been in the tour. But look anything can happen in the next four weeks. I think there are opportunities for all players to get into the final squad of 18," the chief coach said.
Talking about former captain Sandeep Singh, who emerged as the highest goal-scorer in this year's Hockey India League, Walsh said the experienced drag-flicker is well aware about his drawbacks.
"Sandeep is well aware of what he has to alter. We all know he has got a very good corner but he has to become a much better distributor of the ball and he has to be much more agile on his feet. He has got an opportunity, he is working very hard and the next couple of days will see where exactly he is," Walsh said about Sandeep's chances of making the World Cup squad.
India will be leaving for The Hague on May 22 and open their campaign against Belgium on the opening day on May 31.
"We will be preparing here and go to Holland on the May 22. Our first game is on May 31 so it gives quite a bit of preparation time. We plan to play a few full practice games against our group opponents before the tournament starts," Walsh signed off.
India have clubbed alongside world champions Australia, Belgium, England, Spain and Malaysia in Group A while Group B consists of Germany, hosts The Netherlands, New Zealand, Korea, Argentina and South Africa.