By Shahrukh Sohail – Published by DAWN
Following Sunday’s condemnable attack on two churches in Lahore, FIFA citing security reasons postponed the second leg of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers that Pakistan was to play with Yemen in Lahore. Yes, the game will go ahead but at a neutral venue in some other part of the world, possibly Bahrain. Still, it has pulled the stuffing out of the team, who were expecting a home advantage to turn around their fortunes.
And for the supporters it meant seeing the likes of Kaleemullah, Hassan Bashir, Mohammad Ali and Nabil Aslam in action at home. Moreover, it was a chance to redeem March 12’s undoing in Doha, where shambolic defending and dodgy goalkeeping cost Pakistan an extremely favourable result.
In that game the Shaheens, with their foreign-based players and recent win over Afghanistan, hoped to undo the Yemenis on the counter but struggled right from the beginning when under-pressure goalkeeper Muzammil Hussain conceded a penalty inside 15 seconds. Hardly the best of starts but the Wapda shot-stopper redeemed himself with a surprise save from the spot-kick moments later, but was let down by his defence that allowed Abdulwasea Al Matari to head the ball back in with relative ease.
For a game of Pakistani football, the one to be played last week had unmatched hype. Fans were coming all the way from Karachi, the Punjab Stadium in Lahore was expected to be packed, the game was going to be televised and the Pak Shaheens could have made something happen despite their 3-1 first leg loss. But it just wasn’t meant to be
But despite their bad start, Pakistan were a breath of fresh air in attack and looked potent as they tried to break down the opposing defence. Captain Hassan Bashir started as the sole striker and held up the ball extremely well with his deft touch and physical presence. And it was no surprise that the Svebolle forward was involved in Pakistan’s first chance as his cross found Mohammad Ali in the box but the Denmark-based attacker hit his strong strike straight at the goalkeeper.
Things changed for the Shaheens when Mohammad Ahmed (Isa Town) hobbled off on 38 minutes with a muscle injury and Yemen capitalised on that emphatically by launching attack after attack. Coach Shamlan’s decision of bringing on Mohammad Adil (FC Dordoi Bishkek) on 53 minutes instead of Ali didn’t help the cause either, with the winger disappearing for most part of the crucial tie.
Yemen, on the other hand, took full advantage of Pakistan’s lackluster defence and scored their second through Mohammed Boqshan’s towering header on 57 minutes. The dream was truly down and out, so it seemed.
The game will go ahead but at a neutral venue in some other part of the world, possibly Bahrain. Still, it has pulled the stuffing out of the team, who were expecting a home advantage to turn around their fortunes. And for the supporters it meant seeing the likes of Kaleemullah, Hassan Bashir, Mohammad Ali and Nabil Aslam in action at home. Moreover, it was a chance to redeem March 12’s undoing in Doha, where shambolic defending and dodgy goalkeeping cost Pakistan an extremely favourable result.
But in one swift move, Pakistan were back. Youngster Riaz pounced on a hopeful ball forward and the referee awarded a penalty just as he was hacked down in the box. On stepped Hassan Bashir. Pakistan with their notoriously poor penalty record in football were at a standstill. The glorious football coverage from Doha focused on the 28-year-old’s chiseled features as he felt the weight of an entire country on his shoulders. But just like he did against Macau almost two years ago, Hassan, cool as ever, fired an absolute screamer into the top corner and ran to collect the ball as the score reflected 2-1.
Hassan Bashir in action against Yemen
However, it was short-lived glory. From kick-off, Ayman Al-Hagri weaved past the Pakistan defence and was ridiculously fouled by Ahsanullah (KRL) at the edge of the box. Muzammil, who had conceded a free-kick due to his questionable positioning, let down the team once again as Ali Al-Sasi curled one in from 25-yards and handed Yemen back their two-goal advantage.
And Pakistan despite their late surge for a second away goal struggled to penetrate the Yemeni defence, with Dordoi Bishkek superstar Kaleemullah letting down the side on more than one occasion as he aimed for personal glory instead of squaring it for his teammates.
Questions remain hanging over the players’ performances, with the defenders except Nabil Aslam unable to cope with international football. Moreover, coach Shamlan’s decision to ignore Yousuf Butt for a goalie spot has already made it a mammoth task to come back into the tie as Muzammil Hussain continues to struggle and Saqib Hanif is unable to cement his position despite trying for a number of years.
The Bahraini boss’ latest comments are far from encouraging either. He isn’t happy with Denmark-based Mohammad Ali’s performance despite his attacking intent and display being clearly evident at the Grand Hamad Stadium. He’s sent Mohammad Ahmed home after an injury and claims that it will be difficult to regroup the team as the foreign-based players have to report back to their clubs.
The signs are not encouraging for Pakistan’s second leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen. But you never know a game of football, do you?
The writer is chief editor at FootballPakistan.com
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd, 2015