Winning the Asia Cup hasnt mattered as much for India as it does now. Still recovering from the repercussions of failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008,the ignominy of missing the World Cup for the first time looms large for the two-time continental champions as they head into the tournament knowing that anything else but a win would jeopardize their chances of qualifying for the quadrennial championship.
India kick-off their Asia Cup campaign against lowly Oman on Saturday but their task is cut out. Finishing on top of the podium would ensure a World Cup spot. However,India,who are the fourth reserve team for the World Cup,would also qualify for the quadrennial event even if South Korea or Malaysia win the Asia Cup. That is because South Korea have already qualified and Malaysia are all but certain to go through as well.
In such a case,India would go through assuming that either Australia or New Zealand,who too have made the cut,win the Oceania championship.
Pakistan too have to win the Asia Cup to qualify for the World Cup. If India and Pakistan fail to make the cut,it will be the first time that the World Cup will be without these two sides,who have won the title five times between them.
Interim chief coach Roelant Oltmans said that the key was to keep out the pressure that comes with knowing that one cannot afford to have a bad day.
There is pressure,no doubt. Its for us coaches to absorb it and ensure it doesnt percolate down to the players. They need to go out there worrying about that particular match and not what happens if they dont win the tournament, Oltmans said.
India,often the orchestrators of their downfall,will be keen to buck the trend in Ipoh. Their path to semifinals looks quite straightforward. In the group stage,they face Oman (August 24),South Korea (August 26) and Bangladesh (August 28). However,its the semifinals,where they will face either Malaysia or Pakistan,where the actual tournament will begin for them.
The national team has been guilty of succumbing to pressure in crunch situations in the past but Oltmanss assistant MK Kaushik is hopeful of a better outcome this time. Its a young and fairly inexperienced bunch so it is very important for them to get cracking early in the tournament and gain some confidence. The group stage matches shouldnt pose problems. The challenge will be the semifinals. We havent done too well in do-or-die matches in the past but thats something well like to change, Kaushik said.
Indias preparation for the tournament began on the wrong note. Injuries suffered by key strikers SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh at the SAI Centre in Bangalore ruled them out of the tournament. Their absence further depletes a strike force that is already without Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Danish Mujtaba. To add to their woes,skipper Sardar Singh,who was hospitalised earlier this week with fever,too will not take field. Team officials said that though Sardar was fit to play but they he was being rested for the opening match against Oman.
The absence of these key players has rendered the frontline virtually zero on experience. Youngsters Ramandeep Singh,Nikin Thimmaiah,Nithin Thimmaiah,Mandeep Singh and Malak Singh are untested in such tournaments.
Olympian MM Somaya believes its a gamble that could cost India dear. On paper,our forwards look the weakest. Its an area that worries me. The defence and midfield seem to be better and we have a bit of experience there. The strikers are inexperienced. That could also prove to be a boon as they can play without any fear.