K K Poonacha targets top-three finish

K K Poonacha (second from right) with the national team support staff, Shakir Munir (right), Asim Dawood (left) and Khalid Khalfan at the OHA headquarters

It was a familiar setting for former India international K K Poonacha on Sunday as he took over the reigns of the national hockey team for the third time in seven years. 

He first became Oman coach in 2010, the spell lasting nearly two years. He returned to the helm in 2012, but only on an interim basis.

That stint lasted under a month. He then followed it up with a lengthy four-year tenure at domestic giant Ahli-Sidab Club before being appointed last month as Oman coach yet again.

His immediate task is to bag a good result in the highly-competitive Hockey World League (HWL) Round 2 in Dhaka, Bangladesh from March 4-12.

Poonacha is ready for the 'challenging mission', though, banking on his 'understanding' of Omani players.

On Sunday, the Oman Hockey Association (OHA) officially unveiled its new national team coach along with the support staff.

Speaking to Muscat Daily on the HWL Round 2 prospects, Poonacha said, “It is a tough task as we have some very strong teams in the eight-nation group. I am hopeful of a good result, I believe in my boys. My aim is to achieve a top-three finish in Dhaka.”

World No 12 Canada is the favourite to win the Dhaka round, with Egypt (20) and China (18) among the other key contenders besides hosts Bangladesh (32). Oman is ranked 31st, while the others in fray are Sri Lanka (41), Ghana (39) and Fiji (51).

“Canada is a very strong side, along with China and Egypt. As the host nation, Bangladesh is often a tricky side to get past, but we can aim for a top-three finish,” said Poonacha.

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A file photo of an Oman player in action against a visiting Pakistani team at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex

Oman is, however, at a disadvantage as the rules state that the top two teams each of the three HWL tournaments - in Bangladesh, Ireland and Trinidad & Tobago - will move into the semifinal round, while the remaining two teams with the highest world ranking among the three Round 2 events will complete the eight-team line-up.

It effectively means Oman will need to finish among the top two to make a direct entry. In case of a third-place result, it will have to hope that the third-placed teams from the Ireland and Trindad rounds are ranked below Oman - an unlikely outcome on paper.

Poonacha has called upon 34 players for the first camp that will be held at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex (SQSC) from January 10-26.

The players have been picked largely on the basis of their performances in the His Majesty's Cup held in November-December. The second camp, from February 5-15, will feature 22 players.

Our defence an area of concern: Coach

While the Indian World Cupper hailed the Omani players for their skill and 'never-say-die spirit', he warned that defence is in an area of concern. “Our defence is something that I will have to work on. I hope we manage to put up a strong defence during the forthcoming event,” he said.

The Oman coach, who is banking on his drag-flickers Ammar al Shaibi, Ahmed al Nofali, Basim Khatir and Mohammed Hobais, called upon the OHA to organise more tournaments to give the players match practice in order to match higher-ranked opponents.

Five goalies get Oman call-ups

Oman's goalkeeping coach Shakir Munir said that five goalies have been called up for the first camp to get a good idea of the available pool of keepers in the country.

They are Al Nasr's Fahad al Nofli, Ahli-Sidab's Ghassan al Hasani, Seeb's Said al Hasani, Sohar's Mahdi al Atabi and Bausher's Amjad al Hosni.

Two keepers will be picked for the Dhaka trip, with Said - who plays for HM's Cup champion Seeb - set to get the nod.

The newly-appointed assistant coach, Khalid Khalfan, who has worked alongside Poonacha at Ahli-Sidab, said, “We will try to do our best and get good results.”

Former Oman goalkeeper and assistant goalkeeping coach Asim Dawood has been named as the national team manager. After the HWL campaign, Poonacha's next major assignment will be the Asia Cup in Dhaka, to be held from September 30-October 8.

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