India seek return to podium in Azlan Shah hockey

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Ipoh (Malaysia): Five-time champions India would seek to return to the podium after a gap of one year and boost their confidence before the Olympic Games as they begin their campaign in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament with a match against New Zealand here tomorrow.

Outright winners in 2009 and joint champions with South Korea in 2010, India finished a disappointing sixth in the seven-nation field last year but this time they would not be content with anything less than a podium finish.

India came here after securing qualification for the London Olympics, but will have to fight it out with five other teams that have booked tickets for the Olympic Games. The task, however, will not be easy as all the teams except hosts Malaysia are placed higher than India in the FIH rankings.

The tournament has assumed significance in the run-up to the Olympic Games as six of the seven teams in the fray will head for London in two months` time.

Ranked fourth in the FIH charts, Great Britain are a formidable title contender in the absence of defending champions Australia, who have decided to skip this tournament to focus on their preparations for the Olympic Games Great Britain had their first title of this tournament 18 years ago in 1994.

Indian coach Michael Nobbs said past successes or failures in this tournament would not play on the minds of his players. He said the focus will be on providing tough match exposure to the players ahead of the Olympic campaign. "We`ll play to win, but the focus will on the Olympics. With only 16 places in the Olympics squad, I want to give everyone a chance to secure a berth in the Olympic squad," Nobbs said ahead of India`s opening outing against New Zealand.

"Our team is shaping well and to my satisfaction. There are several things we still need to work on. We`ve come here with our top players as this outing is crucial in our Olympic preparation. The Indian players can do with more match practice," Nobbs said.

"We`d earlier planned to send the India A team here, but changed it as the tournament offered an opportunity to play on the blue turf that will be used at the Olympic Games," he said.

India`s first exposure to the recently-introduced blue turf was in London`s four-nation Olympic Test event, where they failed to make an impression against much higher-ranked opponents and finished at the bottom of the competition, but Nobbs said the experience of playing on the blue turf would be of immense help to the side.

Two-time champions South Korea, Asia`s highest-rated team at number six in the world rankings, and reigning Asian Games champions Pakistan at number eight head the continent`s challenge, while a young Malaysian team is aspiring to overcome the disappointment of floundering in the Olympic qualifiers in Ireland two months ago. Malaysia, at number 14 in the FIH rankings, are the only team here that are below India.

Young striker Yuvraj Walmiki makes a comeback to the Indian team after healing from his hamstring injury that occurred during the Olympic qualifiers in February, but the team is without Gurwinder Singh Chandi, who has been left out to recuperate from a similar injury. Nobbs is hopeful of Chandi being back in contention for the Olympic squad.

Completing the tournament line-up are Pan-American champions and world number nine Argentina, who won the title here on their maiden appearance by defeating India in the 2008 final, and world`s seventh-ranked New Zealand. South Korea and New Zealand will feature in the same preliminary group as India in the Olympic Games.

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