When the EuroHockey Nations Championships get underway tomorrow, much is at stake as teams - apart from the title and medals in this competition - are also battling for the elusive direct qualification for next year's Olympic Games in Beijing. In both the men's and the women's event, three berths in the Olympic tournament are up for grabs, with the rest of the participating teams here in Manchester certain to compete in one of the Olympic qualifying events that will be held between February and April 2008.
In the women's competition, current World Champions Netherlands seem set to claim the title. The Oranje women have shown themselves a step ahead of any competitors since early 2006, and come into this event with an excellent blend of experience and youthful talent. Team captain Minke Booij has not been 100% fit and was rested in Holland's practice match against Italy two days ago, which the Oranjes easily won 2-0, but should be good to lead her team in their opener against the very same team tomorrow.
Behind the Dutch, England, Spain, and Germany will in all likelihood fight for the remaining two tickets to Beijing. England have the advantage of playing at home and have looked strong here in their practice sessions, while Germany have foregone several of their more experienced players for some new blood. Nonetheless the side sports an impressive 93 caps on average, with Athens gold medalists Natascha Keller, Marion Rodewald, and Fanny Rinne leading the way. Spain are the dark horse in the trio, their performances characterized by somewhat unpredictable ups and downs. A solid effort won them 4th place in last year's World Cup but no 4 months later, a rather erratic performance in January's Champions Trophy saw them relegated from hockey's top annual event.
Azerbaijan may also be good for a surprise with a squad largely different from the one that finished last in the Champions Challenge two months ago, the most notable change being the incorporation of six recently naturalized Koreans. It remains to be seen how well the two parts of the team will click and adapt to the two men coaching team from Pakistan.
The remaining teams in the women's competition are Ireland, the Ukraine, and Italy, who are all good for an upset on a good day but will probably find it hard to seriously challenge the big four.
In the men's competition, things are a little less clear. Reigning World Champions Germany are favorites, especially after some strong performances during preparation but the Netherlands and Spain have their eyes firmly set on the final as well - as do hosts England who have every intention to follow last year's good performance in the World Cup in Moenchengladbach that earned them a fifth place finish with automatic qualification for Great Britain for the Olympics.
The Netherlands are of course keen to redeem themselves after a disappointing result in last year's World Cup. The Oranjes seemed to be in for a difficult path to that objective, but the miraculously speedy recovery of Taeke Taekema after a recent foot injury has turned the tables: with their deadly penalty corner expert back in their ranks, Roelant Oltmans' boys are certain to make their mark on the competition.
Spain were not quite so lucky, and have to go into the tournament without their star player Santi Freixa who did not recover in time from surgery last month after he injured his meniscus in the European Club Cup. With Pau Quemada having quit the national team earlier in the season, the Spaniards are short on corner flickers and have been struggling with abysmal conversion rates on corners throughout their preparation.
Belgium and France, who finished 4th and 5th in the 2005 Europeans respectively, are hoping to repeat their good performances from that tournament, but may find it just a tad bit harder as the surprise momentum is gone. Belgium are also struggling with a late coach replacement, Australian Adam Commens having replaced long term coach Gilles Bonnet as recently as six weeks ago. Commens has made several changes to the squad after his taking over after a non-impressive performance in the Champions Challenge, so it will be interesting to see how the Belgians fare now. France have also seen a few changes to the squad since 2005, but still rely on their imposing captain Frederic Soyez who has been leading the squad for many years now.
The field is completed by the two teams who won promotion in 2005, Ireland and the czech Republic. Both hope to be able to challenge the big boys but have little actual experience with them. Ireland have seen a little more of them with participation in the 2003 European Nations Cup and last year's World Cup qualifier, and thus seem a little better prepared to cause a stir, but the Czech Republic come into the event not only as the currently lowest ranked team but also clear underdogs and will probably find themselves hard fought to make an impression on the competition.
Independent of teams and results however, everything here in Manchester is set and ready to go for a fantastic event. England Hockey have put in an impressive effort organizing Europe's top hockey event, and the magnificent facilities at Belle Vue that also hosted the hockey event at the hugely successful 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games promise to make the 2007 EuroHockey Nations Championships an event to remember.
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