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 reviews Pakistan’s performance against South Africa and analyses their next opponents Australia who they play on Tuesday in a fight for a semi-final spot.
What a fight back from Pakistan! They believed in each other and displayed great fighting spirit to earn three points against South Africa and remain in the hunt for the semi-finals. The last seven minutes of the game showed what Pakistan hockey is truly capable of, and scoring two goals in the dying minutes of the game was a great testament to their never-say-die attitude.
The start of the match, once again, was not ideal for Pakistan as South Africa managed a lead with just 1:37 on the clock. Pakistan sprung into action after that and upped the ante considerably. They managed to come back from being goals down on several occasions and that aspect of their game was particularly laudable.
They were very organized in the full press and even in half-court press. Waseem Ahmad is no doubt having a great tournament so far but it was heartening to see Fareed Ahmed step up too and provide the midfield with the much-needed impetus. He had an outstanding game. It was also great to see Haseem Khan scoring two goals and assisting two. Muhammad Rizwan (Sr) showed great skills on the left side. Muhammad Imran played like a mature defender and with him captain Sohail Abbas led from the front in the back. Communication was excellent in the front line when going for full press but Pakistan need to consistent throughout the match. They were good in patches and seemed to take the foot off the pedal on several occasions thus giving South Africa the chance to equalize.
Pakistan will need to keep their composure to avoid getting carded. It cost them against South Africa and against Australia it may open the gates. Once again Pakistan did not employ any indirect variation of PCs which was shocking to say the least. Another shocker was goal-keeper Imran Shah’s performance. He should thank his teammates who scored five goals otherwise his pathetic effort would have been in the limelight. He needs to be stable under the bars.
Overall, it was a very good and important victory for Pakistan but they cannot afford to miss easy chances anymore.
Mighty but not invincible
Australia are the top-ranked team in the world and though they are beatable, there is no doubt that they pose the biggest challenge for all participating teams. They have been very consistent for the last few years and have won all major events in the lead-up to the Games. They have some outstanding players like Jamie Dwyer, Eddie Ockenden and Mark Knowles and the most successful coach in the world in Ric Charlesworth. Australia are renowned for playing very fast hockey and are very dangerous in the first and last 15 minutes of the game and normally score in this period. They solely play pressure hockey – their PC attack has not been good so far but they use lot of variations on the top of the circle. Christopher Ciriello is their main drag flicker and his favorite angles, the top left and bottom right, will really test Imran Shah. They have good first runners in PC defense and their defenders and midfielders connect seamlessly. Very famous for quick restarts, they can make the opponents pay dearly. After making a great start to the tournament, the last two games have seen them struggling somewhat. Great Britain came from 3-0 down to draw against them but the 2-2 draw against Argentina was the real upset of the Olympics.
It may seem they are having trouble holding their lead but they will definitely go for goals. There is great understanding between their strikers and the buildup to their attack involves the midfield. Pakistan should watch out for high balls as the Kookaburras move very well in the deep zone. They are very good in covering the second post and score a lot of goals like that.
Australia will most definitely be on the lookout for goals to close out their opponents and will play hard-hitting hockey in the Pakistani defense to get PCs and deflections in front of the goal mouth.
Hold fort and reap the rewards
As I said earlier, Australia can be beaten. Pakistan have always contested well against Australia and beat them in front of their home crowd in Perth last year in a 4-nation event. Pakistan should start with half-court press and try to hold them in the first 15 minutes which will irritate the Aussies. Pakistan have to show great patience and should realise that they will get plenty of scoring opportunities in the 70 minutes.
The Greenshirts should not try to beat the Aussie defense with individual skill but go on the offense as a unit as their defenders are very good in one-on-one situations. Pakistan have to be at their best in counter control as the world champions are very fast in turn overs. Communication will be key.
Pakistan will have to keep the Australian midfield under constant pressure to stop them from generating attacks and its defense will have to be at its best. For goal-keeper Imran Shah, this is a great opportunity to prove all the critics wrong and he should be aiming to be the hero for his country. Shah should put what’s happened in the tournament so far behind him and stand under the bars with a big heart.
Pakistan’s midfield should not hold the ball much and instead deliver it quickly as the Aussies love to put pressure in that area of the pitch to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Waseem and Fareed have been doing a great job in this department and they should keep improving
Time for penalty-corner change-up
In PC attack Sohail should still be the first choice and select angles after thorough video analysis of their goal-keeper and first runner. Even if Sohail is successful, Pakistan should look for indirect variations to ease the pressure on their captain.
When defending PCs, Imran Shah should wait longer for the ball before reacting and be stable on the first shot. Pakistan should run mostly 3-1 full and also change the position of their line stopper.
Fluid strikers needed
If Pakistan's strikers remain static, the Aussies will love it and will not have any problem in putting pressure on Pakistan's defense. So they have to do lot of running without the ball – same for the midfield – to create gaps for the build up.
Pakistan should use the referrals very smartly as they wasted them in the last match and missed out on some clear PCs.
Missing chances will not be acceptable in this match so strikers should be at their best and should finish at least 70% of the chances they get. Aussies defend with a lot of players so Pakistan should use the maximum number of transfers which will definitely give them a lot of space and opportunity to attack.
This will without any doubt be a high-pace game so a lot of rolling substitutions should be utilized.
Pakistan should treat this as the quarter-final of the Olympics and play with great intensity. It will be a great game to watch and the team which plays with more responsibility will win.
Players to watch:
No particular player can be singled out as Pakistan requires the whole squad to fire. My best wishes and prayers are with them, with a special ‘good luck’ for goalie Imran Shah.