Shahrukh Sohail, Chief Editor, Kathmandu
While the 1-1 draw with Nepal might be seen as a decent result, truth is that Pakistan were well on their way to a win and only lost out due to a dubious goal in injury time during which goalkeeper Yousuf Butt was fouled.
Starting the game amidst the 20,000 plus roaring fans in the Darasath Rangasala Stadium, the pressure to perform was clearly on the Shaheens.
However, the crowd went quiet after Fremad Amager’s Hassan Bashir found the back of the net via a Nepali clearance.
Just as the players prostrated to celebrate the strike one could feel that this was Pakistan’s night.
And for the most part it was, at least in defence.
Zesh Rehman, who has been criticized heavily in the Pakistani media, shut up his critics for good. The former Fulham star was at the peak of his powers and his brilliant man-marking, physical game and calm use of sliding tackles meant that Nepal struggled to break down the defence despite going out for attack after attack.
Skipper Samar Ishaq was lambasted for his poor showing against India, but his mature performance today spared Pakistan 2-3 goals which the Gorkhalis would have surely scored.
In recent times, Pakistani keepers have been responsible for some poor showings, but Yousuf Butt changed all that today with a performance to rival any top South-Asian shot-stopper.
Butt commanded his box, made crunching tackles when needed and above all produced world-class saves to deny the hosts amidst a noisy, hostile crowd.
Saddam Hussain who has traditionally played on the wing for Pakistan showed his class with a terrific outing and kept it simple while being solid in defensive duties.
Mohammad Adil had an off game by his standards, while Riaz has potential that certainly needs grooming. Wing-backs Faisal Iqbal and Mohammad Ahmed almost got the job done, only to see 15-year-old Bimal Magar scored in injury time.
Hassan Bashir of course proved to be the marksman and is truly Pakistan’s number one source for goals. His inclusion and perhaps the return of his strike-partner Mohammad Ali could really take the Shaheens to a new level.
All in all, the game proved that Pakistan are a vastly improved side in terms of approach and tactics under coaches Shahzad Anwar and Mohammad Al-Shamlan and their sudden transition will only get better as times goes on.