The 2018 SAFF Suzuki Cup saw an epic end to its opening Group A game in which Pakistan beat Nepal 2-1 with virtually the final seconds of stoppage time on 4 September at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite mostly chasing the ball, Pakistan managed to hold Nepal from repeatedly breaching Yousuf Butt’s net with some gutsy physicality and veteran Zesh Rehman managing to keep the Shaheens’ defence from faltering.
Taking chances on counter, Pakistan took the lead through a penalty from former captain Hassan Bashir to lead 1-0 at half time. With Hassan being taken off injured, substitute Saadullah almost made it 2-0 in middle of 2nd half with superb counterattacking run and shot that just hit bar. However, mounting pressure from Nepal was always going to make way when they equalized through Bimal in 82nd minute after some poor Pakistani marking from a Nepalese corner. It almost seemed like we are all set to see a repeat of the 2013 SAFF Cup clash when Pakistan surrendered a 1-0 lead through Hassan only for Bimal to equalise in Kathmandu all those years ago.
As the game looked certain to fizzle out into a 1-1 draw, Muhammad Adil managed to find space on the left wing to cross into the Nepalese box in 96th minute. Saadullah smartly nodded the ball back from the far post to the hardworking Muhammad Ali who headed past the wrong-footed Nepalese goalkeeper to win the tie and make the Pakistan bench go absolute bananas with the unexpected, but not undeserving, win.
Now Pakistan, with confidence and determination, face an even tougher test on its Defence & Martyrs Day of 6 September at 6 PM PST. SAFF Cup contenders Bangladesh steam rolled past a gutsy Bhutan 2-0 thanks to some fast physical action and tremendous support from local fans. Now, with both Pakistan and Bangladesh eyeing a spot in semifinals, the home side would want to use the home advantage to confirm their place in next round. Given some of their squad impressed in the 2018 Asian Games where they reached the knock-out stages, Bangladesh would certainly be the favourites and an even bigger test than Nepal for Pakistan.
Last time Pakistan faced Bangladesh in Dhaka was the monsoon-ravaged World Cup qualifier in 2011 in which Bangladesh beat Pakistan 3-0 on a flooded pitch that resembled more like a water polo event than a football match. Hopefully this time, rain won’t be a problem at the Bangabandhu Stadium.
Pakistan, unfortunately, have to make do with a rather depleted squad. Denmark-based winger Adnan Mohammad has been unable to join the squad in Dhaka due to visa complications and could even miss the entire tournament. His skills and pace that impressed Danish Superliga observers would have been much needed for Pakistan to have a more credible attack. But an even bigger blow could be losing striker Hassan Bashir to injury as he battles to stay fit. Not selecting the likes of Kaleemullah Khan and Murtuza Hussain may haunt coach Jose Antonio Nogueira in the coming games.
This means Saadullah could likely start the next game and would need to work extra hard alongside Muhammad Ali to keep a determined Bangladeshi defence from slacking off. The midfield would need to adjust and be more on their toes in face of likely Bangladeshi fast and physical action, and be bold enough to ensure they keep the tempo under control and avoid panicking with the ball. The onus would be once again on former Fulham FC defender Zesh Rehman to inspire his young defence to keep focused, and Yousuf Butt would need to be in the form of his life between the sticks. Given our struggles with retaining possession, Pakistan would again have to dig deep and look to hit the hosts on the counter.
A hostile Dhaka crowd would be even more of a factor now, and Pakistan would have to keep their nerves if they are to confirm their place in next round, with Bhutan still to play, for the first time since 2005.