London: India will look to make the most of the Hockey Champions Trophy, the final major tournament before the Rio Olympics, when they kick off their campaign in the six-nation tournament against reigning champions Germany here on Friday. Of the six teams competing in London, five will be in action in the Rio Games, to be held between August 5-21, and the players will get a great opportunity to present their case of being in the 16-member squad for the quadrennial extravaganza.
Apart from Asian Games 2014 champions India, the tournament will feature current world champions Australia (world No.1), two-time reigning Olympic champions Germany (No.3), host nation Britain (No.4), rising European giants Belgium (No.5) and South Korea (No.9).
India, having finished runners-up in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year with an inexperienced squad, are high on confidence. Their confidence stems also from the third place finish at last year’s Hero Hockey World League (HWL) Final in Raipur.
And the motivation can’t be bigger because India have won only a medal in the 36 editions of the Champions Trophy — a bronze at the 1982 tournament. In the last two editions, India have finished fourth.
Although they have rested their talismanic midfielder and captain Sardar Singh and key drag-flicker-cum-defender Rupinder Pal Singh, Roelant Oltmans’ wards will look to make another podium finish, which will give them plenty of confidence going into the Rio Games.
Seasoned goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh will captain the side that will have striker S.V. Sunil as the vice-captain and the latter will lead the attack line featuring youngsters like Akashdeep Singh, Manpreet Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah and Talwinder Singh.
In the midfield, Manpreet Singh may play at the centre of the pitch, while S.K. Uthappa, Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh and Devinder Sunil Walmiki will be on the flanks at the Lee Valley Hockey Centre.
In defence, V.R. Raghunath and Kothajit Singh are regulars and will lead the back-line. India’s second drag-flicking option will be Harmanpreet Singh.
Other regular defenders Rupinder and Birendra Lakra have been rested and in the meanwhile, Pradeep Mor and Surender Kumar will look to make the most of the chances.
In goal, 21-year-old Vikas Dahiya will be the back-up goalkeeper for Sreejesh. It will be interesting to see how Dahiya fares in the limited opportunities he will get.
All the teams, barring the South Koreans, who have not qualified for the Olympics, are ranked higher then the Indians and it is a big task for the Asian champions.
And the big test starts against the Germans, who though not being at their brilliant best in recent months, have a reputation for getting it right in an Olympic year.
And with world class players like midfield star and 2013 FIH Player of the Year Tobias Hauke, defensive rock Martin HÃ¤ner and extraordinary striker Florian Fuchs (FIH Young Player of the Year 2012), they certainly have the firepower to make a solid defence of their Champions Trophy title.
Experienced attacking midfielder Oliver Korn is back after an injury lay-off and will boost the champions, who have rested Moritz Furste (FIH Player of the Year 2012) and Christopher Ruhr (FIH Young Player of the Year 2013 and 2015).
The second match of Day One will see Belgium take on South Korea — a team that booked their ticket to London by winning the 2014 Hockey Champions Challenge.
Belgium have earned a reputation as one of the world’s most feared attacking sides, with striker Tom Boon and midfield star John-John Dohmen being two of many exceptional players amongst their ranks.
The final match of the Day One schedule will see home favourites Great Britain — a side containing the respective talents of attacking duo Barry Middleton and Ashley Jackson — get their campaign underway against reigning World Cup and World League champions Australia.
The mighty Australians will be determined to add to their record haul of 13 Champions Trophy titles here in London. And even though they will be without veterans — forward Jamie Dwyer and defender Mark Knowles — they have every chance of doing so.
The round-robin games will conclude on June 16, with the classification matches and showpiece final taking place on June 17.