Eight of Asia’s best chase the continental title in Dhaka
Between Wednesday 11 and Sunday 22 October, eight of the finest international teams in Asia will do battle over 11 days at the men’s Hero Asia Cup 2017 in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.
This year, the premier continental tournament will feature host nation Bangladesh competing against China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Oman and Pakistan in the race for the title.
With many of the world’s most gifted hockey athletes on show, the competition is guaranteed to be a fiercely contested, world class sporting spectacle for the fans who will witness the action at Dhaka’s vast Maulana Bhashani National Stadium.
As well as the race to be crowned champions of Asia, there is also the small matter of a ticket to next year’s Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018 on offer to the winner.
While World Cup hosts India have been joined by fellow Asia Cup competitors Malaysia and Pakistan at next year’s global showpiece thanks to strong showings in the recent Hockey World League Semi-Final events, for the other competing nations - the Hero Asia Cup 2017 represents one final opportunity to claim that ticket to Bhubaneswar and subsequently keep any hope of World Cup glory alive.
The eight competing teams in Dhaka are split into two pools of four, with Pool A featuring India (FIH Hero World Ranking: 6), Pakistan (WR: 14), Japan (WR: 17) and Bangladesh (WR: 34), while Malaysia (WR: 12), Korea (WR: 13), China (WR: 18) and Oman (WR: 30) will fight it out in Pool B.
In Pool A, two time Asia Cup champions India will be widely considered as favourites not just to top the group but also to win the title, although they enter the competition following a fairly disappointing sixth place finish at the Hero Hockey World League Semi-Final in London earlier this year.
They also have a new Coach, with Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne looking to make an instant impact after replacing compatriot Roelant Oltmans in the hot seat.
Marijne has selected a strong side for the competition, with midfielder Manpreet Singh captaining a group that features only two players - 31-year-old midfielder Sardar Singh and attacking star SV Sunil, 28 - over the age of 25.
Triple Asia Cup champions Pakistan are the second highest ranked team in the pool and will be expected to be India's main challengers in the race for a first place finish in the group. For Pakistan Head Coach Farhat Khan, the target is very much a competition victory.
“We have already qualified for next year’s World Cup in India, but our main focus will be on performing well in the Hero Asia Cup 2017”, said Farhat, who as a player won bronze at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. “There is tough competition among the participating Asian teams with India being the strongest on paper with a world ranking of six. But there are always teams who can spring a surprise as Malaysia showed by finishing fourth at the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London. Therefore, it is important for us to keep focus on our game as we want to win the tournament.”
Japan have turned heads of late thanks to some fine performances, with striker Kenta Tanaka making a real name for himself in 2017 due to his searing pace and brilliant finishing. They too will be a side to watch, while host nation Bangladesh will be hoping that the advantage of playing at home will level the field against their higher-ranked opponents in Pool A.
Pool B features Korea, the reigning champions and, thanks to four titles which include gold medals at the two most recent editions of the competition, the most successful team in the history of the Asia Cup. Despite this fine record, their substandard recent form suggests a third successive title will not be straight forward. A disappointing ninth place finish at the Hero Hockey World League Semi-Final in London earlier this year was not enough to secure World Cup qualification, so the team arrives in Dhaka knowing that this could be their last chance to claim their place in Bhubaneswar.
“It is true that our team has not been able to perform well in the recent times, but it is because we have been going through a transitioning phase in the national team”, said Korea Team Manager Kim Yoon Dong, before explaining his feeling that the team is capable of exceeding expectations in Dhaka. “We have made several improvements in the management, coaching staff and the players by mixing experience with youth.”
With eight players over the age of 30 - including hugely influential 34-year-old midfielder Lee Namyong, who has near 260 senior international appearances under his belt - the Korea squad certainly has plenty of game knowledge to call upon, something which could prove vital in an event such as this. However, with Malaysia and China having both shown good form this year, Pool B is certainly far from straight forward.
Malaysia were superb at the Hero Hockey World League Semi-Final in London earlier this year, defying expectations to finish fourth ahead of India, Pakistan and Canada, teams who all entered the event placed higher in the FIH Hero World Rankings. It is with some justification that Malaysia feel buoyant about their prospects in Dhaka, and will aim to outdo the previous best finish of third, which came at the 2007 competition in Chennai, India.
China will also fancy their chances of upsetting the odds at the Asia Cup, especially after a surprise higher final placement than Korea at the Hero Hockey World League Semi-Final in London. The meeting between the two nations at that event saw China defeat their higher-ranked opponents 5-2, with Su Jun scoring twice from open play in the triumph.
Pool B’s lowest ranked competitors are Oman, but have proven themselves as a side capable of punching above their weight so will not be underestimated. The team finished fourth out of eight nations at the Hockey World League Round 2 competition in Dhaka back in March of this year, earning wins against Bangladesh, Ghana and Fiji.
As for the Asia Cup itself, it is not the first time that Bangladesh has played host to this hugely prestigious continental championship. The previous time that the event was held on Bangladeshi soil was only the second edition of the competition. That event took place way back in 1985, meaning that the return of this high profile tournament to Bangladesh has been a long time coming.
After 32 years, the 10,000 capacity Maulana Bhashani Hockey Stadium certainly provides a fitting venue for a competition that will embody the Big, Bold, Packed and Loud ideals that sit at the heart of the Hockey Revolution.
The competition gets underway on Wednesday, with two Pool A matches kicking things off. India take on Japan at 15:00 (UTC +6) before Pakistan face host nation Bangladesh at 17:30. To keep track of all the action from the Hero Asia Cup, please visit the competition event webpage or following the Asia Hockey social media channels on the links below.
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