13 years is a long time to cross the group stages in any tournament. For Pakistan, reaching the SAFF Suzuki Cup 2018 semifinals after a resounding 3-0 win over minnows Bhutan on 8 September was an achievement and a half. All credit to the players for their blood, sweat and tears coming out of a 3 year isolation away from international football for no fault of their own. After 3 grueling group stage games, they now,face their toughest test yet: a semifinal date with eternal rivals India.
Pakistan started brightly against Bhutan and probably should have had more on the board by half time as they led 2-0 thanks to two superb finishes by winger Muhammad Riaz and fit again striker Hassan Bashir. Knowing that they needed a three-goal cushion in the win to really test the Nepal-Bangladesh match later on, Pakistan faced frustration in 2nd half.
The three man midfield of captain Saddam Hussain, Mehmood Khan, and USA-based Abdullah Nasir Qazi again struggled to retain possession or control the tempo as Bhutan found more and more of the ball as the half progressed, even finding a few good chances for their troubles. Once again, Zesh Rehman was a rock in defence and made sure Naveed Ahmed, Mohsin Ali, and Shahbaz Younis did their bit despite a few nervy moments where Bhutan tried to test the ever reliable Yousuf Butt in goal.
A combination of fatigue and hot weather wasn’t kind either on the team, but substitutes Saadullah and Ahmed Faheem gave some extra spark for that third goal. Eventually in added time, the hard-working Muhammad Ali played a sublime through ball for Faheem to slot past Bhutanese goalkeeper to make it 3-0 with a relieved Pakistan bench jubilant on reaching the semis. Surprisingly enough, Zesh Rehman is the only player in squad to have been a member of the 2005 SAFF Cup Pakistan side all those years ago that reached the semis!
With Nepal beating toothless Bangladesh 2-0 in other group game later that day, the hosts failed to secure even a draw that would have guaranteed them a spot in semis and Pakistan’s path was guaranteed because of superior goal difference. Nepal topped Group A as a result.
India eased past a struggling Maldives 2-0 in Group B to top the group with their U23 team and confirmed their semi-final clash with Pakistan. Maldives, having finished on same number of points and goal difference and goal scored/conceded as Sri Lanka, needed a cointoss to decide their semifinal spots. It was strange for SAFF not to consider disciplinary record as a tiebreaker as that alone would have been enough for Maldives due to earning fewer yellow cards than Sri Lanka.
The Pakistan – India semi-final today, 12 September at 6:30 PM PST will be one for the ages. An impressive but inexperienced India team giving their U23s a chance in a competition they’ve won a record 7 times will want to treat this as a regulation fixture and go to the final. But this is India vs Pakistan, nothing is regulation when these two countries face!
For all their obvious shortcomings, Pakistan have played with pure heart and guts. One would argue that this Pakistan team isn’t as good quality wise as the one that took part in 2013 and 2009 events where they still were unfortunate to go out early. But the way this team has stuck together and done the improbable is a story and a half! Now against India, Pakistan needs to stick to a plan and take whatever chances they can.
This is where the collective experience of Zesh Rehman, Yousuf Butt, Saddam Hussain, Muhammad Riaz, Muhammad Ali, and Hassan Bashir is crucial. They need to lead from the front and inspire the whole squad, knowing they having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bringing Bilawal-ur-Rehman back in the midfield could help add some extra muscle in the middle to disrupt Indian passing. They would have to battle hard and keep 94th ranked India on their toes and prove that 201st ranked Pakistan isn’t here to make up the numbers. They have reached this far to the semis, the prize of a final spot is worth fighting through the pain and fatigue. Tactics will go out the window in this game as both teams would want to protect their national pride at all costs.
Anything goes in such a match. The only question is: who will blink first?
Its now or never, Pakistan!