Zaviša’s boys hope to surprise in AFC U22 Cup qualifiers

by FPDC staff

The qualification campaign for the inaugural AFC U22 Asian Cup begins today (23 June 2012 till 3 July 2012) with 41 member associations vying for 15 spots in the final round that will be held later in January 2014.

The qualification divided into six groups of six teams each and one group of five. The teams will play one-round league format with one team from each group chosen as host nation. The top two sides from each group qualify for the AFC U22 Asian Cup proper along with the best third-placed team in all the groups. The hosts of the Finals – to be chosen later by the AFC – will get a direct berth.

The Pakistan U22 team, coached by Zaviša Milosavljević from Serbia, finds itself travelling to Saudi Arabia as part of Group B taking on the home side, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Sri Lanka, and Palestine.

The young colts begin their campaign on 23 June against hosts Saudi Arabia at the 67,000 capacity King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh with 8 PM PST kick-off. Then they meet Sri Lanka at the 22,500 capacity Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium on June 25, followed by their games against Kyrgyzstan on June 28 at King Fahd International Stadium, against Syria on June 30 at the same venue and against Palestine on July 3 at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium – all of them with 10:45 PM PST kick-off times.

Much of the team plies its trade with various major department sides like KRL, KESC, WAPDA, KPT, and NBP in the Pakistan Premier League with some fresh recruits added from the 2012 National U22 Championship held at Bahawalpur in early May under the coach’s direction. KRL stalwart Kaleemullah from Chaman heads the team as captain with Bahawalpur native Faisal Iqbal from NBP his deputy.

The team lands in the Saudi Arabian capital after 3 extensive tours over the last 2 months across Asia to help prepare for the qualifiers. With full backing and support of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), Zavisa’s boys played some important practice games and friendly matches in Thailand and Bahrain, with a participation in the Al-Nakba International Football Cup hosted by Palestine in between.

With the PFF eager to build-up this current crop of youth players to be the mainstay for Pakistan senior team duty for years to come, such tours and qualifiers have provided many of these boys the perfect opportunity for some much needed international experience, and improvement under an ambitious yet humble Serb coach.

Zaviša was also keen to boost the squad with some quality expatriate footballers from Europe, but unfortunately the right ‘foreigners’ could not be added to squad because of eligibility and commitment issues facing many young semi-professional players in Europe. But he has expressed his happiness with the way the tours and progress have been made for the qualifiers.

However, the tour results show that the side has gelled rather well, and has the ability to grind out results when needed. A standard 4-4-2 formation has been the core philosophy of Zaviša Milosavljević’s team with emphasis on patient build-up and resolute grit on the pitch. With the ever-improving Saqib Hanif in goal, and a gutsy defensive line, Pakistan U22 has managed to surprise their more fancied opponents on tour with a determined performance that Pak football sides have rarely ever seen in recent years. With KRL duo Muhammad Adil & Mehmood Khan marshalling the midfield, there are sparks of creativity from time to time but consistently finding the target remains a question with scoring responsibilities being seemingly shared among the team.

The U22 boys fought hard to record some deserving tour wins against Thai and Bahraini Premier League sides, a fighting 2-2 draw with Palestine in the Al-Nakba Cup, and holding Bahrain U22s 0-0 earlier this week.

However, one major worrying aspect is Pak U22s goal-scoring options. The coach and his assistant Nasir Ismail (NBP) have been hard-pressed to find a worthy genuine striker that can bury chances into the net as poor finishing has been the team’s bane on tour. That’s not to say Pakistan does not have some creativity to make chances, it is in fact the finishing touch in the end that desperately lacks as various golden opportunities to score have been left begging.

This was one of the reasons Pakistan U22 failed to qualify for next round of the Al-Nakba Cup after failing to score against Vietnam U19 in a disappointing 0-0 draw before the daring 2-2 draw with Palestine. Even Bahrain U22s could have been in deep trouble had our boys found the back of the net.

That being said, The U22 boys face an interesting challenge in the qualifiers against its opponents. The team should be confident enough to grab points against the lower-ranked rivals in the group, and would be glad to get the opening fixture against the Saudis out the way first – though admittedly the Saudis have been in poor form over the last year or so. Expecting Pakistan U22s to reach the main round would be a bit of a stretch, but all the practice and hard work of last 3 months can at least make waves for the future with 100% focus and playing to our own strengths as a cohesive unit.

A 3rd place finish in the group is worth fighting for. All they have to do is hit the target when the chance arises.

Squad: Kaleem Ullah (captain), Faisal Iqbal (vice-captain), Saddam Hussain, Saqib Hanif, Muzammil Hussain, Tanveer Mumtaz, Naveed Ahmed, Ahsan Ullah, Manzoor Ahmed, Mohsin Ali, Noor Muhammad, Aamir Siddiqui, Rashid Ali, Mehmood Khan, Muhammad Adil, Sher Muhammad, Bilawal-ur-Rehman, Junaid Qadir, Abdul Rehman, Imran Ali Khan, Muhammad bin Younas, Zakir Lashari, Riaz Ahmed. Officials: Zaviša Milosavljević (head coach), Nasir Ismail (assistant coach), Aslam Khan (goalkeeping coach).

Key players: Midfield dynamo Muhammad Adil, goalkeeper Saqib Hanif, pass master Mehmood Khan, versatile full-back Faisal Iqbal, pacey forward Muhammad bin Younas, captain Kaleem Ullah.

Predictions: Pakistan 0-2 Saudi Arabia, Pakistan 2-0 Sri Lanka, Pakistan 1-1 Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan 1-2 Syria, Pakistan 1-0 Palestine.