Asian Champions Trophy 2018: "Easy semifinal for India, Pakistan confident in spite of injuries," says Rehan Butt
Sandwiched between two of the biggest events in the 2018 hockey calender - the Asian Games, and the World Cup, the fifth edition of the Asian Hockey Federation's biennial contest has, thus far, witnessed some exhilarating and high-class action which has left hockey lovers spellbound.
The much-awaited clash of the Titans, in particular, exceeded expectations by a fair margin and gave Indians hockey fans plenty to cheer about ahead of the Bhubaneswar extravaganza.
Spectacular hockey on display at Muscat
While Mohammad Irfan's one-handed dive to put Pakistan ahead in the very first minute drew a rapturous response from a section of the crowd, Manpreet's sizzling effort to outrun and sidestep Ali Shaan, followed by his well-directed low flick to the extreme right to beat Imran Butt will go down as an all-time classic in the annals of subcontinental hockey.
The spectators were still in awe of the Indian captain's jaw-dropping goal when Akashdeep Singh directed a deft soft-handed pass to Mandeep who trapped the ball with his back towards the goal.
Tasawar Abbas, on the right, and Aleem Bilal, on the left thought they had Mandeep covered but the Indian striker did the unthinkable - he chose not to challenge either of his markers and instead, squeezed the ball between his legs, and into the net, while being rooted to the spot which left the Men in Green flabbergasted.
Watching from the Pakistan bench, were two magicians of the game who are a generation apart but who have both charmed audiences with a similar brand of wizardry in their heyday.
While newly-appointed Chief Coach Hassan Sardar captivated the hockey world with his goal-scoring prowess in the 1980s, Rehan Butt who has been on the coaching team for quite a while now, proved to be the principal tormentor for the Indians in the early 2000s.
India's old nemesis - Rehan Butt
At the Champions Trophy in Cologne in 2002, the Indians achieved a rare victory over neighbors Pakistan in a round-robin pool game but their joy was short-lived.
The two sides met again, in the bronze-medal encounter, and Jugraj Singh (who is currently Harendra Singh's assistant) gave India the lead but Pakistan drew level before half-time.
Dileep Tirkey and Gagan Ajit Singh then put the Indians ahead but Mudassar Ali reduced the deficit, and Rehan Butt scored two goals in as many minutes - one of them, a superb deflection following an astounding dive which won the match and the bronze medal for Pakistan.
History repeated itself a year later when India beat Pakistan in the pool match of the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen by a 7-4 margin but lost the bronze to their arch-rival yet again - with Rehan Butt scoring the winner.
For the third year in a row, in 2004, the Indians lost the Champions Trophy bronze to Pakistan, this time in Lahore, and Rehan Butt scored yet again to establish himself as India's nemesis.
A lot has changed since, and Butt now acknowledges that it is the Indians who will have an easy outing in their semifinal against Japan while his side has their work cut out against Malaysia in spite of the 1-0 win in the pool game of the Asian Champions Trophy.
"We implemented the plan that we wanted to try out in the semifinal, and the boys were really successful in it. The win today is a boost for my side ahead of the semifinals against Malaysia."
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the brilliant striker-turned coach, who is also the elder brother of goalkeeper Imran Butt, lamented the fact that captain Rizwan Sr. may be ruled out for the knockouts.
"We won the pool game 1-0 but there will be a disadvantage for my side as 3 players are injured and may be unable to take any further part in the competition."
"Rizwan Sr, Tauseeq Arshad, and Faisal Qadir, all have calf problems. As there is a rest day tomorrow, Tauseeq and Faisal may recover but Rizwan's injury is of a serious nature and he may not play in the semifinals and finals (or bronze-medal match) as we do not want to risk him before the World Cup."
In a pre-match interview, Hassan Sardar had stated that his players were having problems dealing with the "hard ground" at Muscat and were hence down with muscle cramps.
Rehan Butt pointed out that his boys would be at their best in spite of the injuries but admitted that Malaysia would be tough to beat in a knockout.
"Hopefully, we will be at our best against Malaysia yet again and the boys are really confident of winning the semifinals".
"Malaysia is the second-ranked team in Asia and we are the third, but we have now begun to close the gap. In the past, we used to lose or play out a draw, but now we are really fighting hard. Pakistan beat Malaysia in the Asian Games (4-1) and now we have also beaten them in the pool game of the Asian Champions Trophy."
"The boys are doing well but it is going to be a tough game against Malaysia."
Pakistan and Malaysia are both drawn in Pool D at the World Cup and Butt was emphatic that his team was aiming to make it to the crossovers by finishing ahead of Oltmans' side.
"Focus on Malaysia with World Cup in sight"
"We are also focussing on Malaysia because they are in our pool in the World Cup. Germany and Holland are also in our pool and are pretty high up in the world rankings. We will be focussing on Holland and Germany, of course, but the main focus will be on Malaysia - if we beat them, we will be in the pre-quarterfinal (crossovers)."
Now to the million-dollar question - will India and Pakistan clash yet again in the Asian Champions Trophy final?
The former captain was measured in his response but had no doubts that the Indians would have it easy against Japan.
"We are focussing on the semis for now. Most probably, India will win against Japan as they won the pool encounter by a 9-0 margin. It will be an easy game for India. If we do beat Malaysia, we will focus on a strategy for the final."
Interestingly, Butt who is in his late 30s arrived in India as a coach for the 2016 SAF Games at Guwahati but took the field as a player for a couple of matches, since a member of the Pakistan squad failed to obtain a visa. The ace striker was in action as his side beat India 2-1 and went on to win the title.
So, does Rehan Butt enjoy coaching - and does the minimal age gap between him and the players help to bond the team?
"Ah, coaching is a very tough job," he says with a sigh. "When I was playing, it was easy and relaxing, but coaching is a 24-hour job as I have to take care of the players on the ground and off the pitch too. If I do not take care of the boys off the field, then they will not be able to perform on the field. I do enjoy the job."
"Sometimes, it is easy for me as the boys consider me to be a fellow-player rather than a coach, and open up to me a lot, but it is difficult when I have to be strict with them."
"Let's hope for the best," says the veteran, as the hockey world looks forward to an action-packed weekend at Muscat.