By Ajitpal Singh
THE national women's hockey team will find it tough to make an impression in their first competition of the year at the Olympic Qualifiers which begins today in Kakamigahara, Japan.
The team may have been training as a unit for a long time but they have not played international matches since last December's Sea Cup victory in Bangkok and the lack of match practice could hamper their progress in the qualifiers.
The Malaysian squad spent a week in Seoul before heading to Kakamigahara last weekend, where they have so far had three practice sessions at the tournament venue.
They will open their campaign against second-ranked Azerbaijan today followed by a match against favourites Japan two days later, Belarus (Sunday), Chile (May 1) and Austria (May 3).
It will be tough against Azerbaijan as the former Russian state have several Korean-born players in their squad.
Malaysia edged Azerbaijan 5-4 in their last meeting at a four-nation tournament in 2008 but the World No 15 have improved tremendously since. Coach Nasihin Nubli said his team were well prepared for the tournament.
"We want to start the tournament on a winning note. Azerbaijan have improved so much but we have worked out some strategies and, hopefully, we can get a good result tomorrow (today)," said Nasihin yesterday.
Japan, who won last year's Champions Challenge I, are expected to face either Azerbaijan or Belarus in the final on May 5 for the Olympic berth.