The Indian hockey team would be aiming for a fresh start, putting behind the disappointment of a poor Commonwealth Games campaign, when it begins its pursuit of a maiden Champions Trophy title, taking on arch-rivals Pakistan in the opening clash, in Netherlands on Saturday.
Asian champions India have never won the Champions Trophy in its last 36 editions but will be hoping to claim the feat in the tournament’s last edition here.
The best India has fared in the tournament was the runners-up finish at the 2016 event in London, losing to Australia in a shoot-out.
Claiming the title would be easier said than done for the eight-time Olympic champions as they come into the tournament on the back of a disastrous campaign at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where they finished fourth.
The disappointing finish triggered a change in head coach’s position with Harendra Singh taking charge from Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, who moved back to his old position as coach of the Indian women’s team.
World’s best six teams compete in the Champions Trophy and this year’s line-up include reigning Olympic champions Argentina, world no.1 Australia, Belgium, hosts Netherlands, Pakistan besides India.
India will open against Pakistan before taking on Argentina (on June 24), Australia (June 27), Belgium (June 28) and Netherlands (June 30).
Even though India (6th) are way ahead of Pakistan (13th) in the world rankings, but there is hardly any gap between the two teams when it comes to the head-to-head contests.
India-Pakistan encounters on the hockey turf have always been full of drama and controversies with adrenaline running high on both the sides.
And come tomorrow it won’t be any different as both the neighbours would be eager to prove the other wrong.
Going by ranking and results of late, India will start favourites.
Over the past year, India had enjoyed convincing victories over Pakistan right from the final of Asian Champions Trophy in 2016 followed by a dominant double victory in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London 2017 and the Asia Cup in Dhaka where India lifted the title after 10 years.
But under former India coach and High Performance Manager, Roelant Oltmans, Pakistan surprised India by scoring a late equaliser to earn a draw in the Commonwealth Games this year.
Incidentally, it was the first match of the tournament and penalty corners will be Pakistan’s preferred weapon yet again.
For Harendra, who took over coaching of the senior team for a third time following his last stint in 2009, it will be his first real test ahead of important tournaments like the Asian Games and the season-ending World Cup in Bhubaneswar later this year.
“Getting off to a winning start is vital because it sets the momentum for the rest of the tournament. There will be no room for emotions when we take on Pakistan. The team will play against them like any other team where we go for three points,” a strict Harendra said on the eve of the match.
“We have prepared well for this tournament and are confident of a good performance. Our focus will be on playing according to our structure and executing our strategies against each opponent without making any errors.”
In Gold Coast, India fielded a lot of youngsters dropping a senior like Sardar Singh, but Harendra is in no mood to continue with the experimentation and has selected a strong squad purely on the basis of form in the recent national camp.
Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has got the captaincy from Manpreet Singh, while SV Sunil and Sardar, who is just two games away from reaching 300 international caps, has been recalled to the side.
The 2014 Champions Trophy silver medallists Pakistan may have finished seventh at the CWG, but that result hides the fact that they went through the event completely unbeaten.
Four draws in the pool phase — against Wales, India, England and Malaysia respectively — saw Pakistan finish fourth in their five-team pool, putting them in the 7-8 classification match where they defeated Canada 3-1.
But the founding nation of the Champions Trophy, Pakistan will be determined to add to the titles that they claimed in 1978, 1980 and 1994 — victories that all came on home soil, in Lahore (1978 / 1994) and Karachi (1980) respectively.
Pakistan’s squad selected by Oltmans is a blend of experience and youth, with captain Muhammad Rizwan Sr being one of eight players to have surpassed the 100 international appearances milestone.
Shafqat Rasool is the most capped player in the group with 190 senior international appearances.
In other matches of the opening day, home favourites and European champions Netherlands will play Olympic and Pan American champions Argentina, while reigning champions Australia will take on Olympic silver-medallists Belgium