by Alam Zeb Safi
LAHORE: It will be interesting to see how Pakistan men’s senior football team will tackle the formidable Saudi Arabia in the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers second round.
Both nations are set to meet at the
Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium Al-Fateh Stadium in Al-Hasa on November 16 which will open the Group G competitions of the second round of the Qualifiers. Jordan and Tajikistan are the other contenders in the group. These four teams will play each other on home and away basis in three phases until June 2024 with the top two sides progressing to the third round.
Saudi Arabia’s football has grown rapidly over the years. Their national team has the experience of playing in six World Cups. Last year in the Qatar World Cup they engineered a major upset when they conquered the eventual champions Argentina 2-1 in the group stage which was an awe-inspiring feat.
Having a well-developed Saudi Pro League at their disposal, which has started attracting the world’s best like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema, Saudi players have been seen transforming into world’s solid seeds. And they remain a major threat to even the best opponents in international circuit.
Having defeated Cambodia 1-0 in their home leg of the first round last month following a goalless draw in away leg in Cambodia, Pakistan will have seven overseas players in their line-up when they meet Saudi Arabia in the 19,550 capacity Al-Fateh Sports Club venue.
Pakistan will be missing their skipper Easah Suliman who recently injured himself in the Azerbaijan League. It is highly likely that England-based Imran Kayani will make his debut for the country of his origin against Saudi Arabia.
Imran has already joined the camp in Islamabad under English coach Stephen Constantine who has guided Pakistan to the second round of the Qualifiers for the first time in the country’s football history.
Pakistan team will fly out of Islamabad for Saudi Arabia on Saturday (tomorrow) to give final touches to their preparation for the Saudi Arabia clash. In 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, after being crushed by the then Asian champions Iraq 7-0 in Lahore, Pakistan held the same opponents to a goalless draw in their away leg in Syria.
It will depend on how Constantine makes a strategy for the big game which indeed is a lifetime opportunity for the Green-shirts to tell the world that they can also play gracefully even against the Asia’s best outfits.
Saudi Arabia have to their credit three Asian Cup titles, three Arab Cup crowns and three Gulf Cup titles. Saudi Arabia are expected to go with their full strength against Pakistan. They have recently returned home from their preparation in Portugal for the Asian Cup matches in January in Qatar.
According to sources, Mohammad Waheed and Moin Ahmad have been dropped from Pakistan’s squad for indiscipline. They were part of the major build-up of the brigade during the last one year. “Yes they are not in the squad and have been sent home today,” a source privy to the development told this correspondent.
Former Pakistan captain Kaleemullah said that playing against Saudi Arabia will be a real test for the Green-shirts. “No doubt, Saudi Arabia is strong and it will be a real test for our players to tackle them. Saudi players have the speed, power and they are well-built unit,” Kaleem told The News.
“You even cannot prevent Saudi players from scoring goals by applying defensive strategy,” Kaleem said. “They (Saudi Arabia) will have home advantage also and they have already learnt from Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema in the Saudi Pro League. It depends on how Pakistan’s coach will make a strategy,” Kaleem said.