By Ajitpal Singh
MALAYSIA face a desperate last chance to reach the World Cup in New Delhi in a winner-takes-all qualifying tournament in Ivercargill, New Zealand) on Nov 7-15.
Malaysia, ranked third in the qualifying tournament, have been drawn with favourites New Zealand, China, Austria, Scotland and Wales.
Based on hockey tradition and recent results, the Kiwis, ranked eighth in the world to Malaysia's 16th, are favourite to win the single World Cup spot.
For the record, Malaysia last played in the World Cup when it was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 and on merit, have only made it to the World Cup twice since 1980 -- in 1982 in Bombay and 1998 in Utrecht.
National coach Tai Beng Hai picked New Zealand and China as Malaysia's main rivals in the qualifying tournament.
"However, we cannot take other teams lightly as I believe Scotland, Wales and Austria are also good teams," said Beng Hai yesterday.
"European teams are fast improving and their basic hockey is extremely good. We defeated Austria (3-2) in the Champions Challenge II (July) and have not faced Scotland and Wales for a long time."
As for China, Beng Hai said they have been making steady progress of late.
The last time both teams met, China, the World No 13, beat Malaysia on penalty strokes to finish third in the Asia Cup in May.
"China are fast progressing as a hockey power. They play the speed-and-power game and it has worked for them," Beng Hai said.
With regards to the Kiwis, Beng Hai said home advantage will boost their confidence. Malaysia have only won once against the Kiwis in six encounters this year.
The national team beat them 2-0 in a friendly early this year, and drew 1-1 in the Azlan Shah Cup in April.
Last month, Malaysia lost three times and drew twice in a five-test series in New Zealand. However, the national team were without several regulars including Chua Boon Huat, Kelvinder Singh and Azlan Misron.
On the national team's preparations ahead of the Qualifiers, Beng Hai said the team will likely go on a six-match tour to China on Sept 28 on the invitation of the China Hockey Association
"There are several plans in the pipeline and they will be revealed after it's finalised," added Beng Hai.
There are 30 trainees in the national squad.
QUALIFYING Groups -- Lille (France): France, Pakistan, Japan, Poland, Russia, Italy (Oct 31-Nov 8).
Ivercargill (New Zealand): New Zealand, China, Malaysia, Austria, Scotland, Wales (Nov 7-15).
Quilmes (Argentina): Argentina, Belgium, Ireland, US, Czech Republic, Chile (Nov 14-22).
Countries already qualified for the 2010 New Delhi World Cup (Feb 28-March 13): Canada (Pan American Cup); South Korea (Asia Cup); South Africa (Africa Cup of Nations); Australia (Oceania Cup); England (Winners -- EuroNations); Germany (second -- EuroNations); Netherlands (third -- EuroNations); Spain (fourth -- EuroNations).