DHAKA: Mohammad Ali struck the winner deep into injury time as Pakistan marked their return to international football after more than three years with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Nepal in their SAFF Cup opener at the Bangabandhu National Stadium on Tuesday.
The match was the first for Pakistan’s senior team since the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen back in March 2015 and Ali’s header in the sixth minute of stoppage time ensured Jose Antonio Nogueira’s men began their Group ‘A’ campaign at South Asia’s premier football event on a winning note.
Hassan Bashir had given Pakistan the lead from the spot in the 36th minute but Nepal levelled matters with eight minutes to go courtesy Bimal Gharti Magar after a well-worked corner before Ali’s late intervention.
“We’re back at the international scene once again,” Pakistan’s Brazilian coach Nogueria said at a news conference afterwards. “We didn’t have a chance to prepare well and for one month this team didn’t have any friendly match but we tried to give our best and we did the best.”
Nepal enjoyed 65 percent of the possession but Nogueira said Pakistan were more efficient on the counterattack.
“Nepal played very well on the right side and we were strong on the right side as well, so it was a balanced game,” he said. “Nepal had more possession, but if you look back, we were the more attacking team.”
Pakistan were later joined at the top of Group ‘A’ by hosts Bangladesh who defeated Bhutan 2-0 with goals at the start each half from Topu Barman and Mahbubur Rahman Sufil.
With the top two teams in each group qualifying for the semi-finals, the victory has increased Pakistan’s chances of making it to the final four. They next face Bangladesh on Thursday when Nepal play Bhutan. Defending champions India, Sri Lanka and Maldives are in Group ‘B’.
Pakistan had beaten Nepal 2-1 last month at the Asian Games, where largely under-23 teams take part, but ahead of this game Nepal coach Bal Gopal Maharjan had said that the result in Indonesia came after they had been defensive.
Nepal attacked from the start but were wasteful with some of their chances while being denied by Pakistan goalkeeper Yousuf Butt on the others.
Yousuf stopped a shot from Nepal captain Biraj Maharjan while Nawayug Shrestha shot high and wide past the half-hour mark from inside the box.
It proved costly as Maharjan was harshly adjudged to have pushed Mohammad Riaz inside the box and Jordanian referee Hasan Mahmoud Arafah pointed to the spot. Hassan made no mistake, sending goalkeeper Kiron Kumar the wrong way before coolly slotting the ball into the bottom left corner for his fifth international goal.
Nepal nearly equalised six minutes later but a diving header from Suman Aryal following a third corner in quick succession was saved on the goalline from Yousuf.
Nepal’s pursuit for the equaliser continued from the start of the second half but despite their forwards roaming the Pakistan half freely, they could not find the space to finish.
Pakistan substitute Saadullah was desperately unlucky when his shot from 35 yards out was tipped onto the bar by Kumar with 15 minutes to go.
Nepal got the leveller seven minutes later when Sujal Shreshta curled a corner that was headed by Niranjan Khadka into the path of Magar whose quick left-footed volley gave Yousuf no chance.
Yousuf, however, made key saves in the 90th minute, punching away a fierce drive from Bishakl Rai before fisting away Sujal Shrestha’s powerful strike on the rebound.
Those saves spurred Pakistan on and they snatched victory when substitute Mohammad Adil whipped in a cross from the left which was chased down by Saad whose headed pass was turned in by Ali.
“I’m very happy to be back playing for Pakistan and raise the national flag,” said Ali, who like fellow goalscorer Hassan plays his football in Denmark. “We need more games and participate in every possible tournament. It’s up to the players to show that we need to be playing international football regularly.”
In the day’s second match, Barman scored from the penalty spot for Bangladesh in the third minute with Sufil making it 2-0 in the 46th minute meaning Bhutan’s next match against Nepal is a must-win for both teams if they want to progress from the group stage.
Bangladesh, who controlled the match all along, didn’t take any time to break the deadlock as Bhutan midfielder Tshering Dirji conceded a penalty and Barman sent goalkeeper Tshering Dendup the wrong way.
Both the sides spurned opportunities later in the first half, but Sufil did not when play resumed after the break, hitting the back of the net with a beautiful volley to wrap up the win.