Hockey: Big guns set for World League finals in India

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Hockey's elite, led by Olympic champions Germany, kick-start their preparations for the upcoming World Cup when they contest the final round this week of the inaugural Hockey World League in New Delhi.

The International Hockey Federation's newest competition opened with 54 teams in August 2012, and, after three rounds played across the world, the top seven plus hosts India qualified for the title round.

World Cup holders Australia, the Netherlands, England, Argentina, New Zealand and Belgium are the other teams in the battle for the league-cum-knockout tournament in the Indian capital starting on Friday.

The final will be held on Jan 18.

All eight teams have already qualified for the World Cup to be held in The Hague in the Netherlands from May 31 to June 15.

Germany, who won back-to-back Olympic titles in Beijing and London, will be without captain Max Muller, Christopher Zeller and 2012 player of the year Moritz Furste for the HWL finals.

But coach Markus Weise was confident of a good showing by the world's top-ranked team despite a lack of match practice in recent months due to the harsh European winter.

"This tournament is the stepping stone to the World Cup," he said. "It will be tough for us because we trained indoors at home and now we must play outdoors.

"We are here to improve our game and test our skills against teams we will face again at the World Cup. The competition will be strong, so it is difficult to predict a winner."

Australian captain Mark Knowles said the tournament will be a good workout for his team ahead of the defence of the World Cup title they won in New Delhi in 2010.

"We have come here to win," he said. "Winning will boost morale for the World Cup. I expect Germany to be our strongest rivals, but none of the other teams can be taken lightly."

The Kookaburras, bronze medallists in the London Olympics, start their campaign on Friday against Belgium, to whom they lost in the league's third round in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in June in a penalty shoot-out.

Among other favoured teams are the third-ranked Dutch, who won silver in London in 2012. "This tournament will give us a good idea of how good we are before the World Cup," said head coach Paul van Ass.

Former world champions India, who qualified for the finals only by virtue of being the hosts, get a chance to make a mark in the big league under new coach Terry Walsh of Australia.

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