Asian Champions Trophy, initiated in 2011, is designed to provide a competition among top six Asian nations where they first play each other on round robin which is followed by the knockout stage.
It differs from the Asia Cup and the Asian Games where the number of teams is generally higher and there are some very weak sides such as Thailand and Hong Kong.
The aim of the Asian Champions Trophy is to further raise the standard of strong hockey nations of the continent. This is why only seven countries have so far appeared in the four editions. This number will stay the same at the fifth Asian Champions Trophy, scheduled in Muscat, Oman, from October 18-28. The participating teams are Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Oman.
Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Japan and China figured in all the four editions. South Korea and Oman have made two appearances. China will be absent for the first time in the forthcoming event.
The first three editions were held annually from 2011 to 2013. The fourth event was staged after a gap of three years in 2016.
Pakistan and India have shared the top position so far, both lifting the trophy twice. However, Pakistan have the best record, being the only side to have figured in all four finals.
India have twice been winners and once runners-up. They finished fifth in 2013 when they sent a team made up mainly of junior players.
All the three finals played between the two traditional big powers of Asian hockey turned out to be fascinating duels. In the inaugural edition, in 2011, Pakistan and India met in the final after a thrilling 2-2 draw in the round robin.
The final went to the shootout after a goalless draw. Pakistan had wasted seven penalty corners while India had just one.
India’s goalkeeper S Sreejesh was in superb from. He also stole the limelight in the shootout phase which India won 4-2.
At the 2012 edition, India won the round robin fixture 2-1. The final at Doha’s Rayyan stadium was a nine-goal thriller in front of a big crowd comprising mostly Pakistani and Indian expats. In a game that swayed like a pendulum, no side gained a two-goal advantage at any stage and Pakistan managed to prevail 5-4 with Waqas Sharif’s winning goal coming six minutes before the final whistle.
The final in 2016 was again a cliff hanger. Pakistan had fought back to make it even after going 0-2 down but Thimmaiah won it for India with a goal nine minutes from the end.
The 2013 one was the only final in which Pakistan didn’t face the big neighbor. They came across hosts Japan. The two sides had played a 2-2 draw in the round robin stage. Spurred on by the home crowd, Japan took the lead and went into the second half with their 1-0 advantage intact. The Green-shirts were the better side in the latter half of the match, scoring thrice to win the final 3-1.
Despite having such a fine record at the Asian Champions Trophy, Pakistan are not many people’s favorites this time. At the recent Asian Games they failed to reach the podium. Asian Champions Trophy provides them an opportunity to rebuild their morale before the all-important World Cup starting in India from November 28.
In fact, it will be very difficult to predict the winners this time. At the 2018 Asian Games, Japan surprised everyone by winning the gold for the first time. Silver medalist Malaysia reached the final for the second time only.
Japan upset Pakistan in the semi-final. Malaysia defied the odds by defeating India, continent’s top ranked side, in the other semi-final. Interestingly, Malaysia have won all the four bronze medals at the Asian Champions Trophy editions and will try to go better this time.
South Korea can never be ruled out. They might not have figured at the victory stand at the Asian Champions Trophy but they have lifted the Asia Cup more than any other nation. Their gold tally at the Asian Games is second only to Pakistan.
The hosts Oman don’t have a realistic chance of a medal. That said their enthusiasm for hockey is praiseworthy. Early this year, they staged a 3-nation tourney where they achieved a 4-4 draw with Pakistan.
* Pakistan’s all-time top scorer at the Asian Champions Trophy is centre forward Haseem Khan with 14 goals (in three competitions). He is closely followed by forward Waqas Shareef who has 13 goals. Waqas scored 11 goals in 2012.
* Defender Mohammad Imran was Pakistan’s captain at both their victories in 2012 and 2013.
* Pakistan’s biggest victory at the ACT came against Oman, 8-0, in 2013.
Ijaz Chaudhry -Media Manager PHF