It seems luck never seems to side with the Pakistan football team. Despite putting a much better performance on the ball against hosts Bangladesh, Pakistan again fell short to a late goal that puts our SAFF Suzuki Cup 2018 campaign in jeopardy. The theme has been fairly consistent in past editions in which a mixture of mistakes and misfortune have led to early exits for the Men in Green.
The Group A clash against the hosts at a packed Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka began rather subdued. The hosts didn’t make their home advantage count and Pakistan kept the tempo under control in the first half. In fact, Pakistan did create a few chances thanks to Muhammad Ali’s trickery to test the Bangladeshi goalkeeper whilst the hosts did little to test Yousuf Butt’s resolve.
But whenever Pakistan had or regained the ball in the middle, treating the ball like a hot potato (to quote former Pakistan coach Dave Burns) by the three-man midfield of captain Saddam Hussain, Mehmood Khan, and USA-based defender Abdullah Qazi repeatedly allowed Bangladesh to regain possession and have a go.
This meant there was no stability in Pakistan’s attacking plays and no consistent pressure on Bangladeshi defence beyond a few half chances. Also, with striker Hassan Bashir missing the game due to injury, there was no real target man up front to be the focal point of attack.
Eventually, it all started to come back in 2nd half as urgency set in Bangladeshi ranks. But even then, Pakistan held firm with Zesh Rehman again managing to marshal the defence as the match seemed to be headed into a 0-0 stalemate. But that came crashing down in 85th minute when a long throw by Bangladesh in the Pakistan box made Saddam Hussain’s uncertain header went looping over a crowd of players to a vacant far post where it was seemingly nodded home by Topu Barman. Dhaka found its voice and Bangladesh celebrated like no tomorrow, while Pakistan felt their wind knocked out. The match ended with a 1-0 win for Bangladesh as Pakistan struggling to attack in the final minutes.
Upon closer inspection of the goal scored, it appeared to be an own goal with Barman seemingly not even touching the ball as Saddam’s header went in with no Pakistani defender marking the far post for a clearance. Disappointment all around for a team gaining their stride and confidence that now has destiny in its own hands.
Nepal had whooped Bhutan 4-0 earlier in the day and are now ahead of Pakistan on goal difference (+3 compared to 0) with Bangladesh topping the group with consecutive wins and a +3 goal difference of their own. On 8 September, Pakistan kick off early against Bhutan in their last group game while Nepal face the hosts a few hours later. Ultimately the results in other game could determine if Pakistan can even make the semis or be sent home early again. Whatever Pakistan does can decide how Nepal and Bangladesh play their game. There is a chance that all three could finish with 6 points each, and would need goal difference and/or head-to-head record to decide which two go to the semifinals.
Bhutan may be the weakest team in the group but they are by no means pushovers. Pakistan has the quality needed to win the game but they would need to play with discipline in the middle, keep possession at all times, and maximise their attacking potential with a hopefully fit again Hassan Bashir up front to make it beyond any doubt. The Men in Green need to play like they’ve never played before, and would need to dominate the game from the start and give no respite to the Bhutanese. With destiny firmly in their hands, and the potential of making Nepal and Bangladesh sweat, nothing less than a win over Bhutan by three clear goals for Pakistan would suffice.
Nepal would likely be watching that game and would try to at least match the result. Bangladesh could play a weakened team to give their players some rest and allowing Nepal a chance of a win. If Pakistan fail to beat Bhutan, then Nepal and Bangladesh only need a draw to go through.
It’s a demanding, but not impossible, task. Here’s hoping Pakistan’s break its unfortunate spell and reach the next round. Not just because its our team, but in spite of all the hardships and struggles of last three years, this hardworking bunch deserve this much for themselves to be proud of.