Olympic Games Preview: Women’s Pool A.

The Top of the D has already taken you through the teams vying for the Men’s Olympic Hockey medals. Now, with the games mere days away, it’s the turn of the women.

Netherlands World Ranking: 1.

The world’s number one ranked team comes into the London Olympics as the reigning champions. They qualified for the tournament by virtue of winning gold at the EuroHockey Nations tournament by beating hosts, Germany. This success in addition to their recent record in big tournaments (2nd in the 2010 World Cup, 3rd at the 2012 Champions Trophy,) shows they are a side that can turn it on when it matters. Indeed, their worst ever finish at an Olympic Games is 6th place, which they took back in Barcelona 1992. Their squad reads like a roll call of the finest players in Europe, with two former FIH World Player of the Year winners (Naomi Van As and Maartje Paumen) as well as three current World All Stars, this is a team that will expect to be in the mix come the medal matches.

Players to watch:

The paring in the middle of the pitch of Captain Maartje Paumen and Naomi Van As is quite simply one of the best around. Both players have wonderful close control, a spectacular range of passing, are calm under pressure and can create as well as score goals. Paumen is a threat from penalty corners and has 121 international goals in just 144 appearances. That is a world class ratio in anyone’s book. Van As might not find the net as often as her captain, but she more than contributes her share.

Kelly Jonker, at just 22 years of age, has shown signs of being a genuine out-and-out goal scorer. She seems to have that knack of being in the right place at the right time to find the net for her team. A skill that is by no means the only one she has, but a valuable one nonetheless.

Finally, goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek can lay claim to being one of the best keepers around. Already a two-time FIH All Star, aged just 21, she edged out Floortje Engels for the number 1 slot. Engels would get in most teams around the world, which shows the undoubted quality Sombroek has.

Squad: Marilyn Agliotti, Willemijn Bos, Merel De Blaeij, Eva De Goede, Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel, Maartje Goderie, Ellen Hoog, Kelly Jonker, Kim Lammers, Maartje Paumen (c), Sophie Polkamp, Joyce Sombroek, Naomi Van As, Margot Van Geffen, Kitty Van Male, Lidewij Welten.

Stand by: Floortje Engels, Caia Van Maasakker.

Great Britain. World Ranking: 4.

They are the host nation, the 2012 Champions Trophy runners-up, the bronze medallists in the 2011 Eurohockey Nations (as England), and in the words of Australia Coach, Adam Commens, the favourites for the gold medal. Praise indeed. Great Britain have gone from strength to strength in the last 18 months or so, and are one of the form teams coming into the tournament. Ignore a below-par Investec London Cup, this squad is a genuine medal chance. They have a team ethic and togetherness which makes them, in the words of defender Emily Maguire “relentless”. With the home crowd behind them, they could easily exceed their world ranking and pick up a medal.

Players to watch:

There are simply few better players around than Helen Richardson. Going into her third Olympics, Richardson has been voted into the FIH World All-Star team on three occasions. Her performance in the final of the 2012 Champions Trophy showed the world what a class act she is: The Reading star matched seven-time world player of the year Luciana Aymar in every area of the field and was unlucky to finish on the losing side.

Another World All Star in the ranks comes in the form of another Reading star, Alex Danson. The 27-year-old has 50 international goals. Her mazy runs and ability to shoot off both front and reverse stick makes her a huge danger to any defence.

Finally, you have to mention the captain, Kate Walsh. Also entering her third Olympics, Walsh has been there and done it. She seems to have a Jedi-like ability to read the game, often not needing to make tackles, due to having intercepted the ball before anyone else has moved. She has a useful eye for goal, scoring 40 goals in 287 appearances.

Squad: Ashleigh Ball, Laura Bartlett, Crista Cullen, Alex Danson, Hannah MacLeod, Emily Maguire, Anne Panter, Helen Richardson, Chloe Rogers, Beth Storry, Sarah Thomas, Georgie Twigg, Laura Unsworth, Kate Walsh, Sally Walton, Nicola White.

Stand by: Natalie Seymour, Abigail Walker.

China. World Ranking: 5.

China, who won the silver medal at the Beijing games in 2008, qualified for London by winning the Asian games, where they beat Korea on penalties. They finished 8th at the 2012 Champions Trophy, a result which they would have been disappointed with. China’s game is largely based on a strong defensive base. They are difficult to break down, but have no little quality up front in the shape of Baorong Fu and Yudiao Zhao, both of whom are former FIH All Stars.

Players to watch:

As mentioned above, Baorong Fu has been named in the FIH All Star Team on three occasions. Her experience at the age of 34 will be invaluable to her team. She has scored 41 goals in 286 international games, and will surely integral to China’s efforts in gaining a medal for the second consecutive games.

23-year-old Yudiao Zhao is the other half of China’s star striking duo. With 60 goals in 162 international appearances her ratio of goals to games stands up to scrutiny against most other players’. Due to their style of play, China create few chances, so Fu and Zhao will need to be clinical.

Squad: Qiuxia Cui, Jiaojiao De, Baorong Fu, Lihua Gao, Hongxia Li, Meiyu Liang, Wei Ma, Yibo Ma, Yang Peng, Ye Ren (C), Qingling Song, Sinan Sun, Mengyu Wang, Xiaoxu Xu, Yimeng Zhang, Yudiao Zhao.

Stand by: Dongxiao Li, Chunling Tang.

Korea. World Ranking: 8.

Korea sealed their qualification by finishing 2nd in the Asian Games. They have two Olympic silver medals to their name, (in 1988 and 1996.) They finished 9th at Beijing in 2008. Ranked eighth in the world, they have bettered that position in the 2011 and 2012 Champions Trophy competitions, finishing 4th and 7th respectively, and by finishing 6th at the 2010 World Cup. Similar to China, their Asian Games rivals, much of their strength lies in their defensive ability. Their organisation and excellent one-on-one tackling makes them a tough side to break down. They will try to soak up pressure and hit teams on the break.

Players to watch:

Mihyun Park, the FIH World Young Player of the year in 2006 is a two time FIH All Star. With 90 goals in 155 international games, and still only aged 26 her experience and big game temperament is integral to Korea’s chance conversion on the break.

Kim Da Rae, herself an FIH All Star, knits the play together in midfield with ease and is at the heart of everything positive her team creates going forward.

Kim Jong Eun, like her team mate Park, has developed the knack of popping up with important goals at important times. Again, given the scarcity of chances created by the Koreans, any player capable of finding the net from what they do create will be essential.

Squad: Sena Cha, Eunbi Cheon, Seul Ki Cheon, Hye Lyoung Han, Soo Ji Jang, Yu Mi Jeon, Darae Kim, Jongeun Kim, Jonghee Kim, Okju Kim, Young Ran Kim, Seonok Lee (C), Younghui Moon, Ki Ju Park, Mihyun Park, Seon Mi Park.

Stand by: Eunji Cho, Yoojin Hong.

Japan. World Ranking: 9.

Having finished behind Korea and China in the Asian Games, Japan were forced to go through a qualifying tournament, which they won with some ease, beating Azerbaijan in the final by five goals to one. Japan have little Olympic pedigree to speak of; they have only appeared at two previous tournaments, Athens (where they finished eighth) and Beijing (where they finished 10th), however they are a fast-improving side: They won the Champions Challenge in 2011, qualifying them for the Champions Trophy in 2012, where they finished a very respectable 5th. With the quality of sides in their pool it’ll be a tough ask for them to qualify, but they will hope to upset a few teams.

Players to watch:

Kaori Fujio scored 6 goals in the qualifying tournament to shoot her side into the London Games. She has plenty of experience as she is closing in on 200 international caps and 50 international goals. From a goal scoring perspective, the responsibility will be shared between Fujio and penalty corner specialist, Rika Komazawa.

Akemi Kato, aged 41 is the oldest player in the competition and has 381 international appearances to her name. She might not have the engine she once had, but her quality has not deserted her, meaning she will play a key role in keeping things tight defensively.

Squad: Chie Akutsu, Sakiyo Asano, Kaori Fujio, Nagisa Hayashi, Sachimi Iwao, Akemi Kato, Rika Komazawa, Keiko Manabe, Aki Mitsuhashi, Ai Murakami, Miyuki Nakagawa, Shiho Otsuka, Masako Sato, Akane Shibata, Izuki Tanaka, Yukari Yamamoto (C).

Stand by: Mika Iimura, Ryoko Oie.

Belgium. World Ranking: 16.

Belgium are the lowest ranked side in the tournament and a team who has overcome the odds to make it this far. Having finished 5th in the EuroHockey Nations they were then forced to go to a qualifying tournament in March. Ranked below Ireland and Spain, who also took part in the tournament, the Belgians were not given much hope by most people. They beat Spain 1-0 in the group stage and held their nerve to beat Ireland in the final to book their ticket to London, and their first ever appearance at the Olympic Games. They won the last Champions Challenge II, meaning they will compete in the next Champions Challenge I, still a long way before they compete with the real heavyweights of the women’s game.

Players to watch:

Oddly, they have chosen not to select Sofie Gierts, scorer of a hat-trick in the final of the qualifiers and winner of player of the tournament. Jill Boon, whose brother Tom will play in the men’s competition, and Stephanie de Groof scored 12 goals between them in the same qualifier and will take up the goal scoring mantle in Gierts’ absence. It is likely to take the team performance of a lifetime for the Red Panthers to make an impression on the competition.

Squad: Jill Boon, Louise Cavanaile, Erica Coppey, Lola Danhaive, Stephanie De Groof, Charlotte De Vos, Helene Delmee, Alix Gerniers, Aisling D’Hooghe, Barbara Nelen, Anouk Raes, Emilie Sinia, Gaelle Valcke, Lieselotte Van Lindt, Anne-Sophie Van Regemortel, Judith Vandermeiren.

Stand by: Nadine Khouzam, Valerie Vermeersch.

The Top of the D will preview Women’s Pool B later this week.

About thetopofthed

Columnist for The Hockey Paper and the man behind The Top of the D. Writer, podcaster, goalkeeper and BBC Sport man. Used to work for Great Britain Hockey and have covered the sport at every major tournament.
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