Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan's hockey team 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 previews Pakistan's opening game of the London Olympics against Spain (at 17:45 PST on Monday).
There has been a lot of discussion on the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympic Games that highlighted the British culture and history. For me, the stand-out moment was the lighting of the flame. Handing over the flame to the youth was a great move. Truly inspiring.
It was also nice to see the Pakistan contingent in our traditional shalwar kameez, which promoted our culture. Personally, I think this is a tradition which should be carried on in the future. It was a big relief and a great moment to see Sohail Abbas as the flag-bearer – he deserved to lead from the front. Thank God there was no repeat of the fiasco from the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
Now that the pomp and celebrations are over, it is time to get down to the real business and wield the hockey sticks. Pakistan’s hockey campaign begins on Monday against a very tough Spanish side.
Spain have become strong contenders after finishing second behind Germany at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, bagging their first medal in hockey. They are currently ranked fifth in the world and pose a serious threat to Pakistan’s chances of advancing to the next stage in the Olympics.
Spain are slow to get into the rhythm of the tournament and are not able to give their best show in opening encounters in most cases. Here lies Pakistan’s advantage as this will be a very important match for them. Despite not being very strong tournament starters, Spain have had a good year of preparations for the London, including their runners-up finish at the 2011 Champion's trophy in New Zealand so they will remain one of the podium favourites.
The Spanish team is full of skilful players, including Santiago Freixa, Pablo Amat and Eduard Tubau and they all come together to form a very strong and seamless attack. The Spanish love to threaten their opponents from the left, with their trademark back-hand shots. Here, the role of Pakistan’s defence will be very important, especially in the deep. I expect Spain to keep the Pakistani defence line on their toes. The goalkeeper, Imran Shah, will have to show great communication skills when he shouts out to the defenders to keep the team away from trouble.
Spain are relatively weak in the midfield and they have to rely on support from their strikers to try and keep the spaces compact. Apart from the attacks from open play, Spain can also be very threatening from penalty corners. They have a good penalty corner attack with Pau Quemeda and Santiago Frexia as their main drag-flickers.
Pakistan are lucky to have the world’s best drag-flicker and leading goal-scorer in their side. The Greenshirts should try to win as many penalty corners as possible and give Sohail Abbas maximum opportunities to score. This will be a good way of bringing Spain under pressure as they are not very confident in defence, especially when it comes to defending turn overs.
In deep defence, they are weak in man-to-man marking and leave spaces behind. However, Pakistan have problems of their own in their forward line. Over the years, they have been found guilty of missing several goal-scoring opportunities, sometimes, really easy ones!
Before leaving for London, our coaches insisted, as always, they have worked hard on it and have almost overcome this problem. If it is true, then Pakistan will not be a easy team to beat.
Pakistan’s midfield has some really energetic players and has the services of the most experienced player of the team in Waseem Ahmed.
Strategy for Greenshirts
The Greenshirts should not focus on playing attacking hockey for all 70 minutes of the game. Instead, they would be better off waiting Spain to make mistakes and build on them. They need to focus on doing a lot of turnovers and get maximum numbers of penalty corners.
Pakistan must try and break the connection between Spain’s strikers and for that they have to play most of the game half-court press.
If Pakistan’s players and coaches play with patience, Spain will be in real trouble.
Pakistan should start with three strikers, three midfielders and four defenders. Shakeel Abbasi should start in the midfield and if needed later, he can play as a striker. Rehan Butt is quite capable as a lone striker.
Sohail should not play in deep defence as he is very effective on the sides so he can be very useful as a right-half. If he plays as a full-back, then Rizwan Junior should be the right-half as he is a very talented and energetic player.
Waseem should hold the centre with Fareed Ahmed as a left midfielder and they can switch their positions when needed. Rizwan Senior can also be used in the midfield as he has also shown several good performances as a left midfielder.
In deep defence Muhammad Irfan is the best choice he is a solid defender and a brave player. I haven't seen Spain doing variations on penalty corners so Pakistan should not have much problem defending PCs as they have good first runners in Rizwan Senior and Muhammad Irfan. Our goalkeeper Imran Shah has a big responsibility on his shoulders to support the whole team with a good performance and give some much-needed confidence to the team.
Players to watch
Sohail Abbas, Shakeel Abbasi, Muhammad Rashid, Muhammad Irfan.
For me, a draw will be a good result for Pakistan but losing all three points will really harm their chances of progressing.