KARACHI, March 15: Pakistan’s football team left Dubai for Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in the late hours of Friday night for their all-important AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers which kick-off from Sunday.
Pakistan, who had been involved at a training camp in Dubai since last week, face the hosts, Tajikistan and Macau in Group ‘B’ of the qualifiers.
Groups ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ have already been played with their respective group winners Myanmar, Afghanistan and Palestine having already qualified for the tournament slated to be held next year in the Maldives.
Apart from the group winners, two best second-placed teams from the five groups also have a chance to reach the finals.
So far India, from Group ‘A’ and Bangladesh from Group ‘B’ top that table with six points each.
Group ‘E’, featuring the Philippines, Turkmenistan, Cambodia and Brunei, also commences on Sunday.
Pakistan face Tajikistan in their opener, followed by a match against Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday before completing their assignment with a match against Macau two days later.
“It will be very tough,” Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) secretary Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi told Dawn on Friday. “But we hope that we can get the desired results and the points which will send us through to the finals.”
On their tour of Dubai, Pakistan lost their only practice match 2-1 on the UAE reserve side but Lodhi believes that it is a result which doesn’t truly reflect the current potential of the team.
“A practice match is a practice match and players don’t give their all,” he remarked. “We have a good team which has had a good run of results so that won’t hinder our spirits.”
Pakistan have a full squad for the qualifiers with Hassan Bashir, who plays for Denmark’s second-tier club Nordvest, expected to join the team in Bishkek, according to Lodhi.
With a strike-force boasting Hassan along with Kaleemullah, Mohammad Mujahid, Jadeed Khan Pathan and another
Danish-based striker Mohammad Ali, Pakistan can test the meanest of defences provided they play with an attacking mindset.
England-based midfielder Adnan Ahmed will provide the team with the creative flair along with the tireless Mohammad Adil and Yasir Afridi supporting him with Faisal Iqbal being the anchor in the centre of the park.
Before their match in Dubai, Pakistan performed admirably in their back-to-back tours of Nepal and the Maldives; winning two while losing just one of the four matches.
And the team’s Serbian coach believes that will help the team in Kyrgyzstan.
“If we continue our form and the technical nous we displayed during the recent friendlies, we can expect to get the desired results,” Zavisa Milosavljevic said earlier this week.
The minimum target for the team is six points and they can hope that victories over Kyrgyzstan, ranked 30 places below them in the FIFA rankings, and Macau — to whom they have never lost, will see them well-placed to qualify as the two best second-placed teams.
Tajikistan, however, will offer Pakistan their sternest test.
The team ranked 152nd in the FIFA rankings released on Friday, 19 places above Pakistan, have been boosted by their recent rise in AFC club competitions.
Tajikistan, whose club champions till recent times, used to participate in the AFC President’s Cup — the continent’s third-tier club event where the champions of Pakistan’s Premier League take part — now see their top clubs take part in the AFC Cup, behind only Asia’s showpiece event, the Champions League.
Most of their national team players come from Regar TadAZ, three-time President’s Cup winners, and Istiglol, winners of the last edition.
However, the performances of Tajikistan’s two representatives Regar and Ravshan Kulob, current Tajik champions, hasn’t been too pleasing in the AFC Cup.
Regar lost 3-0 to Bahrain’s Al-RIffa while Ravshan fell 2-0 to Syrians Al-Shorta earlier this week and the trio of Tajik stalwarts coming from the two clubs, namely goalkeeper Alisher Dodov, striker Davronjon Tukhtasunov and defender Odil Irgashev would be looking to rebound against Pakistan.
Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, haven’t had the perfect preparations for the qualifiers, having lost 3-0 to Belarusian side FC Shakhter Soligorsk in a warm-up match earlier this week.
A good performance for Pakistan in the qualifiers will not only help them qualify for the finals but also enhance their standing in the FIFA rankings table as neighbours Afghanistan have recently discovered.
The Afghans, languishing near the foot of the table until last month, were the biggest movers as they leapt 48 places to their highest-ever ranking of 141st amongst 209 teams after victories in the qualifiers.