Dhaka : Olympic bronze-medallist India will return to action for the first time since their historic third-place finish in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games earlier this year when they take on South Korea in their first match of the 6th Men’s Asian Champions Trophy here on Tuesday.India, the three-time Asian Champions Trophy winners will be defending the title they jointly won with archrivals Pakistan in 2018 in Muscat, Oman, taking on a field depleted by the last-minute withdrawal of Malaysia.Led by skipper Manpreet Singh, who will have drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh as his deputy, India have put up a new-look squad, resting several players that were part of the bronze medal-winning campaign in Tokyo and will be testing junior and upcoming players. Though they may have put up a new-look side, the Indians still start as favourites for the title considering their recent performances, including the fourth-place finish in the Men’s Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar earlier this month.The other teams remaining in the fray in this five-team event besides India and Korea are three-time winners Pakistan, hosts Bangladesh, and Asian Games gold medallists Japan. Teams will play in a single pool round-robin format with the top four teams reaching the semi-finals.
Malaysia was forced to withdraw after a player tested Covid positive during a preparatory camp for the tournament. As per the current regulations in the country, all the players and coaching staff were classified as close contacts and therefore had to quarantine for a minimum period of seven days, effectively disrupting their preparations.Though the field got depleted, the Indians go into the event with other objectives too.India have won this prestigious event thrice since its inception in 2011 and skipper Manpreet emphasized on getting off to a good start as the first step in their quest for another title. “Korea is a good team and are very capable of slowing down our attack. In this same venue during the Asia Cup in 2017, we had drawn (1-1) against them in the league stage. Hence, it’s important we don’t get complacent against them and ensure our basics are right when we play them tomorrow,” he was quoted as saying in a release by Hockey India.Speaking about the importance of the tournament for Team India, Manpreet said, “The tournament is quite an important one for us as it is our first tournament after the Tokyo Olympics. The new cycle has started for us. If we start well, then our confidence levels will go high,” he said.India are giving a chance to several youngsters for this tournament, and Manpreet went on to explain why doing well for them here will be crucial.
“In the Men’s Asian Champions Trophy 2021, youngsters have been given a chance to be a part of the squad because some of them were unable to get a chance over the past two years as the focus was on the core team preparing for the Olympics.””The youngsters have been working hard for quite a while, and hence, they have been given a chance to prove themselves,” he added.Some of these youngsters will be part of the Indian squad for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Paris World Cup as the seniors in the team are not getting any younger and the selectors will have to take a call on their continuity in the squad soon.Apart from the temperament of the newcomers in the squad, the focus will also be on the team’s fitness as the Indian players are playing their first event after Tokyo.Speaking on the team’s fitness levels before the start of the tournament, Manpreet said: “We are in pretty good shape. We focused a lot on our fitness at the recent camp in Bhubaneswar. We are looking forward to seeing how the other Asian teams have shaped up over these past two years. The tournament will be a good test for our squad,” he signed off.After the opening match against Korea on Tuesday, India will take on hosts Bangladesh on Wednesday. Their third match will be against arch-rivals Pakistan on December 17 and on December 19, they take on Asian Games Champions Japan.The semifinals will be played on December 21 followed by the Final on December 22.In the previous edition of this event held in Muscat, Oman, India had jointly lifted the title along with Pakistan as the Final was called off due to incessant rains.