KARACHI - M Imran’s Pakistan team will be facing their stiffest challenge as they take on Japan in their opening match in 9th men’s Asia Cup Hockey Tournament which explodes into action in Ipoh (Malaysia) on Saturday.

Pioneer of launching Asia Cup in Karachi in 1982, Pakistan is drawn in pool ‘A’ with Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan, Chinese Taipei while pool ‘B’ consist of South Korea, India, Bangladesh and Oman.

Both Pakistan and India will look to scale the hockey summit in Asia once again and in the process earn themselves a place in the next year’s World Cup being held in the Netherlands.

Pakistan had the honour of clinching the first three editions of the championship in 1982, 1985 and 1989 before sliding down. They lost to Korea by solitary goal in last edition at Kuantan (Malaysia) in 2009.

Despite Pakistan and India’s impressive track record in the continental event, it will be a wide open with fast rising Malaysia and defending champion Korea. Real contest will start in semi-final as India, Pakistan, Korea and hosts Malaysia are firm favourites to reach the knock-out rounds. Pakistan missed a golden opportunity to qualify for the Asia Cup after disappointing performances in Sultan Azlan held at same venue a couple of month ago.

After group round robin league matches, top two teams form each pool will qualify for the last-four grade. Pakistan will play their toughest match against Malaysia on Sunday.

“We are mentally and physically ready for the task ahead to win the title. It will not an easy ride but are hoping boys to deliver their best,” manager cum chief-coach Akhtar Rasool said. Olympian Tahir Zaman has taken over as the new coach in place of Olympian Hanif Khan, who was sacked by Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) on different pretext.

Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, England, South Korea and hosts the Netherlands have qualified for the World Cup. Only 12 teams will qualify for the World Cup.