By Ali Ahsan
We almost pulled it off. Almost. After managing to hold the score 0-0 for 80 minutes under difficult weather at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium in front of 35,000 home fans on 6th June, Pakistan’s hearts were broken twice within minutes to give hosts Cambodia a 2-0 win in the first leg of the joint Asian preliminary qualifiers for 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Two avoidable defensive mistakes in last 10 minutes, and Pakistan’s inability to score a crucial away goal, means needing almost the impossible now. If Pakistan are to achieve a place in the next round of qualifiers, they would need to beat Cambodia by 3 clear goals in the ‘home’ leg at Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium (Al-Ahli SC) in Doha, Qatar on night of 11th June. A 2-0 score for Pakistan at the end of 90 minutes means extra time and even penalties. That should be the bare minimum to at least grasp at.
With the team being unable to play their home game in Pakistan proper due to unresolved political divisions within the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) that also stopped many crucial domestic players from boosting national ranks, 2022 WC hosts Qatar will be our ‘home’ for this draw at least though having a supportive crowd could be a tall ask despite the country being home to an expat Pakistani community.
Things that could have and should have happened on 6 June evaded Pakistan yet again. From debutant Samir Nabi failing to score in 2nd half, to defensive midfielder Yaqoob Butt’s injury that left defensive gaps which Cambodia exploited to score twice late on, with makeshift leftback Muhammad Riaz struggling to clear the ball on both occasions.
Surprisingly enough, this make-shift Pakistan side was not as physical and domineering in the 1st leg to effectively disrupt the home side. Whatever chances Pakistan got to run at goal, sloppy composure meant they had to start over repeatedly. Hassan Bashir cut a lone figure sometimes with makeshift striker partner Samir failing to capitalize. The likes of Navid Rahman and substitutes Abdullah Qazi and Ali Uzair were passengers in midfield without Yaqoob. Some of the better points of the game were Adnan Mohammad being an attacking threat down the right and Umer Hayat doing rather well as right-back.
But in return leg, form goes out of the window. Cambodia coach Keisuke Honda may want to take it defensive and maintain their advantage to qualify for next round. Pakistan coach Jose Antonio Nogueira would need to make some changes in the side with whatever squad they may have if they are to pull off the impossible. Ahmed Faheem can start on the left while Mohammed Ali’s exact position in starting line-up remains speculative after Nogueira went with a 4-4-2/5-3-2 hybrid in 1st leg.
Here’s the thing. Pakistan need to score quickly and early – within first 5-10 minutes – to set the tempo. At least in Doha, a natural grass pitch and hot dry weather should make it a lot easier for Pakistan to perform better than on a rainy, artificial turf in Phnom Penh.
Pressure must be maintained on the visitors throughout the match if the deficit needs to be overcome within 90 minutes. Set-piece delivery and winning fouls is necessary. Lower-ranked Asian sides have often struggled to get results away from home. Things may get ugly on the pitch, but unfortunately this second-string Pakistan side have no other options if they are to nick a result.
A lot will hinge on the shoulders of Adnan and Hassan to create and finish chances, and the rest of the team must pull in a shift as well. A hopefully fit again Yaqoob will be able to go through the full 90 minutes to keep things tidy in the middle. Despite his mistakes, Muhammad Riaz can still start as left-back as he performed okay in this makeshift role before all went south. This would mean maintaining a defensive line that denies Cambodia space to play counterattacks to get their own away goal and needing to quickly transition possession to attack – easier said than done, right?
Players like captain Saddam Hussain, Kaleemullah, Umair Ali and others are sorely missed due to PFF turmoil denying them the right to play in these crucial games as they would have added more strength to the side. FIFA’s navel gazing of last 4 years to resolve PFF crisis has exacerbated the plight of Pakistani footballers.
As things stand, Pakistan still lack a single WCQ win in 30 years with only 4 draws from 31 qualification matches played. The odds are stacked high against the ‘home’ side in Doha and, if finishing is poor, could mean Pakistan becomes the first side to come play in the 2022 host country and be the first to go home from it.
For the more experienced lot in this squad, this may well be their last chance to do something for Pakistan otherwise failure to overcome deficit means another period of international isolation and the end of their international careers.
This match must be treated as the biggest game of their football careers. Win the impossible and forever redeem the disappointments of the past decades. Fail to do so and suffer blame and derision from whoever bothers to keep tabs on Pak football while the folks fighting for power in the PFF continue to get away with it.
Prediction: Pakistan 3-1 Cambodia (after extra time) – Cambodia going through on away goals after 3-3 aggregate scores.
Preferred Pakistan line-up tomorrow (4-4-1-1):
Goalkeepers: Yousuf Butt, Ahsanullah Khan, Muzzamil Hussain
Defenders: Zesh Rehman (c), Rahis Nabi, Umer Hayat, Abdullah Qazi, Ali Niazi
Midfielders: Yaqoob Butt, Samir Nabi, Mehmood Khan, Ali Uzair, Muhammad Riaz, Navid Rahman
Attackers: Hassan Bashir, Adnan Mohammad Yaqoob, Tabish Hussain, Mohammed Ali, Ahmed Faheem