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India face Russia in opener

As regards to the overall fitness of the players, the coach said each of them was in prime condition. The only concern was a stiff shoulder that prevented drag-flick specialist Diwakar Ram from light training last evening.

india Updated: Feb 29, 2008 17:05 IST

A nervous India will launch their campaign in the World hockey Olympic qualifying tournament with a match against Russia here tomorrow, fully aware that any slip-up at this stage could shatter their hopes of an Olympic berth.

Since only the winner of the tough six-nation tournament would book a place in the Beijing Olympics, Chief Coach Joaquim Carvalho wants to take one match at a time and not leave any thing to chance.

The Indians are keen to win their opening match against Russia with a big margin to avoid the pitfall of goal difference in the later stages of the tournament.

"Russians are an unknown quantity and so, there is no room for any complacency. Our simple strategy would be to score as many goals and win the match," Carvalho said on the eve of the match.

"It would be the same for the other games. That way, we will avoid the pitfalls of goal-difference or depending on results of other matches," he said at the sprawling Prince of Wales club here.

Carvalho, however, admitted that the task on hand was indeed difficult and the pressure factor could play a decisive role in the fortunes of all the teams.

"It is not just India who will be under pressure, but all the other teams too. We have done everything possible to get the players in top condition and I am confident that we will deliver some strong results," he said.

Looking ahead to the game against Russia who, incidentally lost 3-1 to Chile in a practice match yesterday, Carvalho said their emphasis during training sessions had been on tightening the deep defence to cut down the number of penalty corners being conceded.

Veteran full-back Dilip Tirkey, the former captain who is bidding to play in his fourth Olympics, will have a key role to play as he is also an option during penalty corner set-piece drills with his powerful hits.

"Of course, Dilip is a key player and has been an inspirational figure. However, much will depend on our midfield play that can win or lose a match," Carvalho said.

"But we have very good players in the midfield with each of them capable of scoring goals on their own besides providing support to the specialist forwards. That I feel is our strength."

As regards to the overall fitness of the players, the coach said each of them was in prime condition. The only concern was a stiff shoulder that prevented drag-flick specialist Diwakar Ram from light training last evening.

"Diwakar only has a stiff shoulder. He has played a lot of hockey in the past few months and the niggle is nothing to worry about. I rested him today as a precautionary measure, but he will be fit for our opening game against Russia," Carvalho said.

Most of the 18 players in the squad have been together since April last year when Carvalho took charge as the chief coach. The team played in three tournaments, finishing third in two (Azlan Shah Cup and Champions Challenge) while winning one (Asia Cup).

"If you look at the team that played in the Azlan Shah, my first tournament as the coach, and compare it to what it is today, I would say there has been tremendous improvement.

"Most importantly, the players have bonded well over the past year. There is a lot of potential in the side that has a good mix of youth and experience," he said.

Besides India and Russia, the field includes Great Britain, Austria, Mexico and hosts Chile. The teams will play a preliminary league followed by the classification matches with the No.1 placed team qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.

Nine teams China, Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Australia earned direct entry to the Beijing Games leaving three spots to be decided through as many qualifying tournaments.

Although on paper Great Britain appear India's strongest and main challengers, Carvalho dismissed such speculation.

"I don't even want to entertain such talk. We will try to win every match and if we do so, then everything else will fall in place," he asserted.

Of the other teams, Great Britain have picked a fairly experienced side. They arrived in Santiago two weeks in advance after playing a series of matches in Europe and South Africa.

Mexico, Austria and Chile are expected to provide much of a resistance to the two front runners, India and Great Britain.

New Zealand beat Argentina to join the nine in the first qualifying tournament while the second leg will commence here tomorrow and the third round is in Japan (April 5-13).