Pakistan go into their opening group game against Tajikistan with mixed feelings and sense of unknown as they last faced Tajikistan in the identical fixture in 2006. The Persian Lions then beat Salman Sharida’s men 2-0. This time around the expectations are higher from The Shaheens of Zavisa Milosavljević.
It is an all Serbian clash as Tajikistan are managed by Zavisa’s fellow countryman Nikola Kavazovic. Pakistan had good preparations with consecutive wins over Nepal and a fighting double header against Maldives in which Pakistan drew one and lost one. A short training camp in Dubai has helped the team re-energise with the inclusion of Adnan Ahmed and Mohammad Ali who missed the February friendlies. There is a sense of disappointment too with the absence of key players such as Shabir Khan who played in the February friendly matches, Amjad Iqbal and Zesh Rehman. Local players such as Rasool and Rizwan weren’t fully fit to be part of the team and the reason why Zavisa is travelling with just 20men.
Tajikistan on the other hand are excited by the late but timely arrival of their key playmaker Nurridin Davronov who recently joined a Serbian club and only joined the team in Bishkek due to postponement of a league match. Most of the Tajik squad are same who have played together from the 2007 U17 FIFA World Cup and recently played in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers 3rd Round.Tajikistan’s last international friendly was against Iran in which they lost 6-2 and the recent training camp at has been low profile. Kavazovic ignored the players from the Tajik League Champions Ravshan Kulob and many of the players joined squad recently due to their involvement in AFC Cup with their club Regar-TadAZ. Ranked 152 Tajikistan will start as clear favourites against Pakistan with conditions suiting the Central Asian side.
Pakistan believe they can get a positive result if they play to their strengths despite missing key defenders like Shabir and Amjad. The inclusion of Adnan Ahmed will offer some stability in midfield and the return of Jadid Pathan should help provide pace on the wing. Pakistani midfield chases large parts of the games against Maldives and Nepal, they cannot afford to give so much time and space to Tajikistan who will punish mistakes. Kaleemullah will have to step up to the plate and perform in midfield as he is unlikely to get his preferred striker role due to return of Ali. Kaleem has not scored for Pakistan since joining the senior ranks in 2010.
Defenders Kamran and Samar will have carry on from where they left off against Maldives (barring the last game) and keep things tight at the back. Denmark based Yaqoob Butt could offer an alternative to Zavisa as a left back but it was defensive midfield role where he earned rave reviews against Maldives and should be given a start there. It is evident that likes of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have technically gifted players who are not shy to test the goalkeeper from distance and from set pieces. And that is where the worry lies fir Pakistan, the out of form Jaffar who is automatic choice due to being captain could prove costly. Jaffar made simple howlers of range shots against Maldives and Singapore recently, so Zavisa will have to think real hard if to gamble on Jaffar.
Adnan Ahmed recently joined Droylsden FC and was in good form for The Bloods as he scored against Hinckley and became a key figure at Droyslden very quickly. With Pakistani defenders opting for long ball it looks unlikely that Adnan Ahmed or others in midfield will have much to create therefore Pakistan’s hopes lie with strikers Hassan and Ali and they could be the difference between the final outcome. Hassan already has a goal and impressive showing in recent games whereas Ali will be looking to live up to his reputation as a no nonsense type of striker. Muhammad Mujahid could well be used as a super sub as he showed against Nepal.
Tajikistan are expected to give Pakistan a tough test and it will mainly come from Nurridin Davronov and Pakistan must plan to counter him. The Tajiks will also have good physical presence in defence THE Kazakhstan based Davron Erghasev and in midfield Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev. Strikers Farhad Tohir and Komil Saidov are likely to pose some serious threat to the Pakistani backline. Spartak Stadium in Bishkek is said to have a heavy pitch due to the weather conditions and it could turn out to be a very tough encounter.
Given the strength Tajikistan have and with key players missing from Pakistan’s squad it would be difficult for Pakistan to get 3points here. And Pakistan do fail to win they better not allow themselves a heavy defeat so that they can maintain a good goal difference to remain in contention.
Prediction. Tajikistan 3 – 1 Pakistan.