Indian eves chase history in Olympic qualifiers

New Delhi: The Indian women`s team will look to break a 32-year-old jinx as they mount a challenge for a berth in the London Olympic Games taking on a lowly Ukraine in their opening match of the qualifiers at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium here Saturday.

The last time Indian women`s team featured in the Olympics was in the 1980 Moscow Games and that too on an invitational basis.

However, the Indian team looks in good shape now. They won their four-Test series against Azerbaijan 4-0 at the same venue and also registered a 5-2 win against Canada and a 1-1 draw against Italy in the two warm-ups here.

India have a good mix of youth and experience with five players in the team already having featured in the 2008 Women`s Olympic Qualifier, where India finished fourth in the Qualifying Two event and missed out on a berth.

Forward Rani Devi, who received the Most Promising Young Player of the Tournament award in 2008, skipper Asunta Lakra, defender Subhadra Pradhan, forward Jasjeet Kaur Handa and midfielder Deepika Thukar have all played in the 2008 qualifiers and would be spurred up to do well this time.

However, India will have to get over their tendency to give away early leads, an area which even coach C R Kumar agrees India need to improve. "We conceded early leads in some matches and we worked on these areas during the practice matches. We set targets on every game that we played in the practice and the girls have not repeated those mistakes," Kumar told PTI.

"We have seen 5-10 minutes of Ukraine`s practice match against Italy and they have a couple of very skilled players, they rotated the ball frequently and we are looking forward to the match," he said.

India had a better conversion rate of penalty corners during their warm-up match against Canada as they converted three out of the four short corners they earned but still this is one area they need to be consistent.

Ranked 26th in the World, Ukraine, on the other hand, had to battle extreme weather conditions to prepare for the tournament as the temperature dipped to minus 30 degrees. However, Ukraine can take heart from the fact that they have one man in their rank, who knows Indian hockey and the conditions here inside out.

Former India men`s team coach Jose Brasa, whose tenure ended in 2010, is back in India as an advisor to the Ukrainian women`s team and knows everything about the turf, the atmosphere that his team will face Saturday.

"It is difficult to beat them, we came here with lots of hopes, we were in Barcelona for 10 days to prepare, we couldn`t train outside in Ukraine as weather was very bad there. So we didn`t have enough time to prepare but we hope to just play and give our best," Brasa said.

"Our target is to get some experience and get the players international exposure, we have good players but not enough time to prepare. We can do anything but we will see how we fare in the tournament," he added.

Overall, India is likely to be threatened by world number 12 South Africa, which is the top-ranked team in the tournament, one place above the hosts but Brasa feels the home girls can beat the Proteas in the finals. "I am very much impressed with the Indian women`s team.

They did well at the Asian games, they were improving well and playing well. They have some very skilled players and I feel they can surprise South Africa in the finals may be," Brasa said. India will next face Canada on Sunday, Poland on Feb 21, South Africa on Feb 22 and Italy on Feb 24.

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