KUANTAN: Last month, newly-appointed coach K. Dharmaraj guided the national hockey team to a second placing in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament in Ipoh.
This time, he’s hoping to go one better at the Champions Challenge I tournament, which starts at the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium here on Saturday.
This is a far cry from the fifth-placing target they had set for themselves in 2012 in Argentina. Then, Malaysia came out fourth.
But Dharmaraj believes that they can win the tournament “as we will have home ground advantage”.
He also insisted that the Champions Challenge I would give him an insight into what’s in store for the future – especially with the World Cup coming up in four weeks’ time.
The recent six-Test match series against China in Kuala Lumpur and the warm-up games against Ireland and Poland here have also given Dharmaraj more options to pick his final squad.
Dharmaraj also deserves praise for not being afraid to wield the axe on under-performing players or those he feels do not fit into his plans.
That probably explains the exclusion of former skipper and experienced midfielder Mohd Shahrun Nabil. Mohd Ramadan Rosli and Mohd Razie Rahim were the other two players dropped when the final 18.
“I have in mind the structure that I want to implement and also the players I deem fit for it. It was a difficult choice in dropping the players but, at the end of it, we have to see who will fit into the system that we want to play,” said Dharmaraj.
In the Champions Challenge I, Malaysia are in Group B with France, Canada and South Korea. Group B comprises New Zealand, Japan, Poland and Ireland.
Malaysia should be able to start their campaign with a bang as they will be up against newcomers France, who have 12 juniors in their side and are grooming the team for the future.
Malaysia can take heart that the group matches mean nothing as all eight teams will make it to the quarter-finals.
So, the group matches against South Korea and Canada will provide useful practice for Dharmaraj’s men as well.
But Malaysia still want to finish top of their group so that they can avoid the big teams, like world No. 6 New Zealand, in the last eight.
The Group B favourites are South Korea, who come into this tournament as the continental champions of Asia.
The Koreans also showed signs of good form at the recent Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where they beat two of their Champions Challenge I group rivals – comfortably defeating Canada 3-0 and drawing 2-2 with Malaysia.
South Korea have been runners-up in each of their three previous appearances – in 2003, 2005 and 2012. Thus, they will be looking to win this time.
New Zealand are also considered the tournament favourites and the team, coached by former Australian international Colin Batch, claimed a silver at the Hero Hockey World League Final in New Delhi in January.
They are also one of three teams in Kuantan who will be in action at the World Cup in The Hague from May 31-June 15. The other two are South Korea and Malaysia.
So, expect the action in Kuantan to likely to be hot and spicy.