Doha: Starting as overwhelming favourites, confident India would look to open their title defence on a positive note against an unpredictable China in the second edition of the Asian Champions Trophy here on Thursday. The Sardar Singh-led India will approach the tournament with a new-found confidence and zeal having finished a creditable fourth in the prestigious FIH Champions Trophy in Melbourne earlier this month after competing as a wild card entry.
India lost to arch-rivals Pakistan, whom they defeated en route to the title here last year, to miss out on a bronze medal at the just-concluded FIH Champions Trophy in Melbourne. And this tournament would not only provide Sardar and his boys the opportunity to avenge their defeat at the hands of Pakistan but also make up for their disappointment in Melbourne, where they missed the podium by a whisker.
Impressed by the performance of the team in Melbourne, India have retained the same 18-member squad for Doha, an indication that the selectors are looking ahead to the future.
India enter the tournament as defending champions having won the inaugural edition.
Considering the level of competition in the tournament, Pakistan are the only team that will provide stiff competition to India. If everything goes according to the script, a repeat of the last year's summit clash between the neighbouring countries is a sure shot. Apart from India and Pakistan, Oman, Malaysia and Japan are the other teams in the six-nation event.
India have a relatively young team under Sardar and it has gelled well and looked a close-knitted unit in the last few tournaments. Sardar will control the mid-field while the backline will be under vice-captain VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh's responsibility.
India's forward line, however, continues to give a few worries to chief coach Michael Nobbs, who feels Pakistan are red hot favourites for the title this year. "Look, Pakistan is clearly the favourite for this tournament. Both the teams are playing after coming straight from a tough tournament, but Pakistan has some great players like Shakeel Abbasi and Waseem Ahmed; between them they have around 600 games," Nobbs said ahead of India's tournament opener. "We only have Sardar [Singh] who has figured in 150 matches."
Nobbs said the German style of hockey, which he adopted after London Olympics debacle, has paid rich dividends for India. "I think after the Olympics we looked at the German team. They have good standards at world hockey and so we took positives from their play and put them in our style of play. We still have our attacking style of play but we have tightened up in the defence a bit more looking at the way Germany play," he explained.
Nobbs also is in no mood to take any team lightly in the tournament. "It will be a tough tournament. We played China in the last Asian Champions Trophy and I must admit they are very good side," he said.
India captain Sardar Singh exuded confidence of defending the title here, and said the 2-3 defeat at the hands of Pakistan in the Champions Trophy is a thing of the past now. "We are confident of defending the title. We have a young team which is gelling well and producing results. We might have lost to Pakistan in Melbourne but this is a new tournament and god willing we will return home smiling from here," he had said.
After China, India will play Japan on Friday, followed by matches against Oman (December 23), Pakistan (December 24) and Malaysia (December 26).
In other matches of the day, Pakistan will face Oman while Malaysia will be up against Japan.