Antwerp (Belgium): After two unconvincing wins, a misfiring India face their first real test when they take on arch-rivals Pakistan in a much-anticipated Pool A encounter of Hockey World League Semifinals, in Antwerp on Friday.
The showstopper encounter between Asian Games champions India and Champions Trophy silver medallists Pakistan has raised the stakes in the diamond city of Antwerp.
The misfiring Indians enjoy the luxury of having already qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games, but Pakistan have promised to go all-out into attack in tomorrow's sub-continental contest.
India's players celebrate after scoring during during the Group A men's group stage match between India and Poland. Pic/PTI
For both India and Pakistan, a victory in this preliminary pool match will pave the way for a favourable quarterfinal draw.
Tomorrow's match is also the first encounter between the sub-continental hockey rivals since their clash in the tense, incident-marred Champions Trophy semifinals in Bhubaneswar, where some gestures during onfield celebrations by the victorious Pakistani team lead to a few suspensions.
There remains some palpable tension between the teams over that incident, but tomorrow both the side would seek to showcase the attractive sub-continental style of hockey. Going into the contest, both India and Pakistan's strikers have been erratic and wayward.
India have won both their first two outings against France (3-2) and Poland (3-0) but Paul van Ass' wards were far from impressive.
Pakistan, on the other hand, managed to beat Poland 2-1 before being outplayed by Australia. Australia hammered Pakistan 6-1 last evening after being 1-1 level at half-time.
India captain Sardar Singh said even though their Rio Olympic berth is secured, they want to take this opportunity produce some positive results ahead of the World League Finals, to be played at home at the end of the year.
"We want to win against Pakistan ahead of the game against World champions Australia the next day," said Sardar. For India's new chief coach Paul van Ass to be a part of an Indo-Pak contest comes as a completely new experience.
"It's going to be my first experience of an India-Pakistan hockey encounter. But during the 2010 World Cup in Delhi, I saw the excitement it causes," said Van Ass, a former Dutch national coach.
Van Ass says he had only seen the current Pakistan team on television before the ongoing tournament, but insisted India were focused on their own game.
"We need to control the ball well and our penalty corners ought to be better executed," said Van Ass, who has used the tournament to try out new strategies and also some young players.
"The young boys always give lots of energy," he said. Several injuries to some key players and the new coach's plan to test juniors is the reason India are not here in full strength.
In comparison, Pakistan have a well-settled side, which is here in full strength. "Our lineup has not changed since the Incheon Asian Games and the Champions Trophy at Bhubaneswar last year," said Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheikh, a former captain and Olympian himself, who was also the coach at the Asian Games and Champions Trophy.
"We have a lot at stake in this tournament," said Shahnaz, seeking to play down the controversy about over-the-top celebrations that followed the last encounter between the two neighbours.
"Let bygones be bygones and let's put up a fine exhibition of hockey," said Shahnaz. "We want to win this one to improve our position in the group and get a good draw in the quarterfinals," said Shahnaz.
For Pakistan this tournament is the last opportunity to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, having lost the Asian Games gold medal to India, who thus became the first team to secure passage to next year's quadrennial event.
Three Olympic qualification spots are available to the top-placed teams from this competition, but some sides ranked slightly lower may also get a chance if any of the countries also feature in the five places available to winners of continental tournaments.
Pakistan have played at every Olympics since their first appearance in 1948, but they failed to feature in the 2014 World Cup, an event that they have won more times than any other country. The top three teams in this tournament will also advance to the World League Final in India in December.