By Alam Zeb Safi,
KARACHI: The month of March 2015 will be crucial for Pakistan football as the country will be featuring in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the 2016 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers.
It would not be easy for Pakistan coach Mohammad Shamlan to handle both the teams at the same time, but he is quite confident that he would manage them. “It looks a bit difficult but I am confident that I will handle both the sides comfortably as I have a stock of players who can be fielded in both competitions,” Shamlan told ‘The News’ here in an interview on Thursday.
On March 12 and 17, Pakistan’s senior team will appear in the 2018 World Cup first round qualifying play-offs on home and away basis for which the draws will be unveiled on February 10.
From March 23 to 31, Pakistan will feature in the 2016 AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers which will also serve as 2016 Rio Olympics qualifiers.
For both the assignments Shamlan has made a solid preparatory plan.
“We will start the camp at Islamabad from January 25 in which 39 players (27 under-22 and 12 seniors) will report,” Shamlan said.
Malaysia-based former Fulham defender Zeeshan Rehman, Sami Malik (Germany) and Denmark-based striker Hasan Bashir and midfielder Otis Khan are also on the radar of Shamlan. “We are in contact with these players and hope they will join us,” he said.
“Before our friendly against Afghanistan on February 6 at Islamabad, we plan to have two warm-up games between our senior team and the under-22 lot on January 29 and 31,” he said.
“After playing against Afghanistan, I would like the players to have rest for a week because they have already played a long domestic league,” added Shamlan.
He said that they would reassemble most probably on February 15 at Lahore.
He made it clear that he would field senior team in the friendly against Afghanistan’s senior team which has around ten foreign-based players.
“On February 19, I would like to have an international friendly for the under-22 team and on February 26 a friendly for the senior team. Then on March 2 and 7, I would like to have international friendlies for the senior team before they go for the World Cup qualifiers,” the coach elaborated.
He said that he had given the details to Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). “The PFF is trying to arrange these international matches for the teams,” he said.
When PFF’s secretary Col Ahmed Yar Lodhi was approached, he said the federation was trying to send the team to at least two countries for practice matches.
In the 2016 AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers, Pakistan have been clubbed in Group B with Jordon, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
The Group B slots will be hosted by Pakistan, most probably at the Punjab Stadium, Lahore.
A total of 43 teams have been drawn into ten groups, with the ten group-winners and five best runners-up qualifying for the final round, which is to be hosted by Qatar from January 12-30, 2016.
From there top three nations will make it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Green-shirts will begin their campaign on March 23 against Turkmenistan, play against Jordon on 25, Kuwait on 27 and Kyrgyzstan on 31.
Shamlan is confident that his team would click in the under-23 qualifiers. “We have tough teams in our group, but I always go for a win and InshaAllah we will produce positive results,” he said.
“From my perspective, the under-23 championship is more important than the World Cup qualifiers as we have invested a lot on preparing our young side during the past one and a half years,” the coach added.
Shamlan said that before the expiry of his contract in July this year, he would like to give something positive to Pakistan.
“It needs a lot of time and investment to build a fighting side. The way our under-22 team beat India in the two-match series in Bangalore and put up a nice show against strong China and North Korea in the Asian Games reflects that the team has improved. But for development of a team you need time, investment and patience,” the coach said.
Shamlan lauded PFF for the support it gave to him during his coaching stint. “I am very thankful to the PFF for its all out support to me during the entire period I worked here,” said Shamlan, who also serves as PFF’s Director Technical.
He also termed the adjustment of four Pakistani players in foreign league beneficial for the country. “It will benefit the country. I will try to adjust a few more Pakistani players in Bahrain’s league in future,” he said. Besides the players already groomed by Shamlan during the past 18 months, he has also invited to the camp some new players from the Premier League.
They include goalkeepers Shehbaz (Army) and Ghulam Nabi (K-Electric), Naved (KPT), Murtaza Hussain (KRL), Najeeb-ur-Rehman (Army), Faheem Shah (KPT), Habib-ur-Rehman (PIA), Mohammad Tahir (Muslim FC), Shehram Babar (PIA), Mohammad Sufyan (PAF), Faheemullah (Army) and Gul Mohammad (Afghan FC).