By Alam Zeb Safi
Pakistan were drawn with a monstrous Yemen side in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers first round as the draws for the 12 lowest-ranked Asian nations were unveiled at Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
Pakistan will open their campaign with their away leg on March 12, maybe at a neutral venue due to the ongoing unrest in Yemen, followed by their home-leg at Lahore on March 17.
“The venue for our away leg will be decided in a couple of days,” Pakistan Football Federation’s (PFF) secretary Col Ahmad Yar Lodhi told this correspondent.
“Asia’s 12 lowest ranked sides – India, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, Timor Leste (ranked 35th to 40th by FIFA), Nepal, Macau, Pakistan, Mongolia, Brunei and Bhutan (ranked 41st to 46th by FIFA) were involved in the draw at the AFC House,” Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said on Tuesday.
Besides the Pakistan-Yemen pair, India were clubbed with equally balanced Nepal, Timore Leste with Mongolia, Cambodia with Macau, Chinese Taipei with Brunei and lucky Sri Lanka with minnows Bhutan.
Pakistan are currently ranked 188th and Yemen 176th as per FIFA’s world rankings unveiled on January 8.
Pakistan coach Mohammad Shamlan is aware of Yemen’s standards but is confident that his charges would give everything they have and make it a tough affair.
“No doubt, Yemen are a tough side. They are regular in the AFC Cup and in the Gulf Cup and have a lot of experience. But I have the ambition to beat them,” Shamlan told ‘The News’ from Bahrain on Tuesday.
He agreed if all key players including the foreign-based joined them his side could become much better.
“I had invited more foreign-based players but some did not come for the friendly against Afghanistan. But I hope we will have all our top players for the World Cup qualifiers and that will be an advantage,” said Shamlan.
He was quick to add that pairing with strong Yemen was not an excuse.
“It is not an excuse that we have been placed with Yemen. I always go for a win and InshaAllah we will try to perform in the first round,” he added.
After guiding Pakistan to a 2-1 victory over Afghanistan in a friendly in Lahore on February 6, Shamlan went to Bahrain to spend a week with his family.
However, he is scheduled to come to Pakistan on Friday.
“Yes, I will come on February 13 and the very next day we will start the camp,” Shamlan said.
It is highly likely that Pakistan will have the services of former Fulham defender Zeeshan Rehman, Kyrgyzstan-based star striker Kaleemullah, winger Mohammad Adil and Bahrain-based defender Mohammad Ahmed in their bid against Yemen. All of them were not part of Shamlan’s brigade in their clash against Afghans in which the hosts were led by Denmark-based striker Hassan Bashir. Bishkek-based midfielder Saddam Hussain was also seen in action.
Pakistan team assistant coach Hasan Baloch said that Yemen had good standard.
“We had played against Yemen in the AFC Under-16 Championship qualifiers in Kuwait a few years ago and I was impressed by their standard. But we have also good youngsters and I hope we will give tough time to Yemenis,” Hasan said.
Yemen had crushed Pakistan 4-0 in the 2012 AFC Under-16 Championship qualifiers Group B in Kuwait on September 22, 2011.
Former Pakistan coach Tariq Lutfi, in a different taste, labeled Pakistan’s draw against strong Yemen unlucky.
“Yemen, like Iraq, is also a troubled country but with good football standard,” Tariq said.
“I think, Yemen are the strongest of the 12 lowest-ranked Asian outfits drawn in the first round,” Lutfi said.
“Yemenis are neighbours of Saudi Arabia and are physically strong. And so it is not easy to compete with them. But we should think positive. If Pakistan beat them it could instill a new life in the country’s football,” Lutfi said.
However, he suggested that Shamlan would have to be a bit careful in the away leg.
“Shamlan is naturally an aggressive coach which is a good thing. But in the first leg against Yemen he will have to be more careful. Win or draw would be much better. But if they lose, they will need to keep the scoring margin down so that they could get a chance at home,” said Lutfi, who was Pakistan’s coach when they lost to Bangladesh in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
The six winners of the first round of the qualifiers will advance to the second round where the 34 highest-ranked nations await them. The 40 nations will then be drawn into eight groups of five teams each the slots of which will be held from June 11, 2015 to March 29, 2016.
The group-winners and four best runners-up (total 12 teams) will advance to the 2019 Asian Cup finals and the final round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
The next best 24 outfits from the preliminary stage of the joint qualifiers will compete in a separate competition for the remaining slots (12 slots or 11 slots + 1 slot for the host) in the 24-team 2019 Asian Cup finals.