Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he talks about Pakistan’s impressive win over Germany in the FIH Champions Trophy 2012 and previews the semi-final against the Netherlands.
Defeating the Olympic champions
It is great to see two Asian teams (Pakistan and India) in the medals race of the Champions Trophy. The win against Germany guarantees Pakistan a spot in the next edition of the Champions Trophy and now Pakistan will not need a wild-card entry. Not only is it a big achievement, the performance also shows quick recovery from the management as well as from the players after their poor show at the 2012 London Olympics. After 2004, this is the first time Pakistan have a chance of winning a medal in the Champions Trophy.
Pakistan began the match with a lack of confidence. In the first half, Pakistan were looking clueless. They were just hitting the ball in the circle blindly and making defensive errors as a result of which Germany scored their first and only goal after just nine minutes. Pakistan created a penalty corner in the first half which was wasted by captain Mohammad Imran. Pakistan played a very individual game in the first half, especially while going forward, and lost the ball easily, particularly in the midfield.
However, after the break, Pakistan came out with a different approach. The way the Greenshirts played in the second half is the best hockey they have played in the tournament so far. They were attacking with good passes and creating a lot of space in front with their movements and the German defence was fully shattered by the strikers.
Midfield was doing a great job in maintaining possession. The Pakistani defence was outstanding and faced the attacks of the Olympic champions with courage. It was great to see that Pakistan’s goalkeeper, Imran Butt, did not have much to do in the match which shows the character and quality of the 10 players standing in front of him.
Pakistan created a good number of penalty corners which were all well saved by the German goalkeeper but they helped maintain pressure up on the German defence.
Shakeel Abbasi, who had missed some chances in the previous games, performed up to the mark in style and at the right time when it was needed badly, sealing the win with two goals. He is a player who never gives up and stood out as the hero of the match.
Shafqat Rasool and Rizwan (Sr) were at their best in the right and left midfield and Waseem Ahmed played a great role in the important victory for Pakistan and showed that the men in green were hungry for success.
Pakistan’s next challenge is against the Netherlands. A semi-final is always the most important match of any tournament. Winning a semi-final assures a team of a medal and against the Netherlands, it will be a totally different ball game than the one Pakistan had in their opening match of the Champions Trophy.
Pakistan will have to be very strong in the midfield and stay alert at all times against Netherlands. Pakistan have to repeat what they did against Australia – ease the pressure with short passes and midfield movements. The Greenshirts should not force the play and should keep the possession as much as they can. Ball speed in the build up will help to beat the front line of the Dutch.
Pakistani defenders should follow their man instead of the ball as Dutch attackers love to attack with give and go. Pakistan should avoid giving easy penalty corners and should be prepared for some indirect variation from the Dutch side. Butt is in a good shape so far and he should not try to do any thing new or extra and should keep playing the way he is.
Pakistan’s strikers have to play the way they did against Germany in the quarterfinal. Netherlands also have a good defence line and can be beaten with short passes instead of individual play. The Dutch keeper is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and Pakistan have to be very smart to pass him and that can be done in a group attack. Pakistan should also have a good counter control at the back as Netherland’s counter attack is very fast. The Greenshirts should start the game with half court and should try to convert it in running press on the Dutch.
Players to watch:
Shakeel Abbasi, Waseem Ahmed and Imran Butt