Nepalese football player Sandip Rai (L) vies for the ball with Pakistan's Kaleemullah during the SAFF Championship football match in Kathmandu. -Photo by AFP
Pakistan’s destiny is out of their own hands at the SAFF Championship.
This after Nepal conjured up a stoppage time equaliser in a thrilling 1-1 draw in their Group ‘A’ match at Kathmandu’s Desharath Rangala Stadium on Tuesday.
It left Pakistan's hopes of reaching the semis of South Asia’s premier football competition hanging by a thread as they lie third in the group on one point, ahead on goal difference from fourth-placed Bangladesh who drew 1-1 with India in the other group match earlier today.
It means that even a win against Bangladesh in their final group match on Thursday wouldn’t be enough for Pakistan if India and Nepal play out a draw.
Nepal top the group, ahead of India on goal difference, with both teams on four points.
At a packed Dasharath Stadium, Pakistan who replaced an erring Kamran Khan with Saddam Hussain, started better of the two teams as they forced Nepal on the back-foot.
Mohammad Adil and Hassan Bashir, following their exploits in the 1-0 loss to India in the opener, were a constant thorn for the hosts and it didn’t take long for the latter to put Pakistan in front.
A succession of corners led to Hassan scoring with a superb volley past Nepal goalkeeper Kiran Chemjong in the 13th minute after midfielder Adnan Farooq Ahmed delivered a delightful cross into the path of the Denmark-based marksman.
With the home crowd stunned, Nepal had to respond and Bharat Khawas and Anil Gurung — scorers in their 2-0 win over Bangladesh in the tournament opener — had a few sniffs at goal but Pakistan's man in goal Yousuf Butt was alart to the danger.
Suddenly, Nepal were on the front foot; drawing fouls from Pakistan’s defenders and creating chances but Yousuf was proving too much of a barrier for them to overcome.
Sandip Rai tested him with a curling free-kick near the half-hour mark but Yousuf made a world-class reaction save to deny him before Hassan shot wide with the goal at his mercy.
Rai went close again after he headed a free-kick inches wide in the 39th but Pakistan held on to end the first-half with their lead intact.
Pakistan’s star defender Zesh Rehman produced a sterling performance in the heart of the defence but even he was left watching when Jumanu Rai missed a sitter four minutes into the second-half.
Near the hour mark, Yousuf was again called into action when he denied Sagar Thapa’s arrowed header from going in and Rehman cleared a ball with a last-ditch header after two Nepal players had gone past the Pakistan back-line five minutes later.
Pakistan were producing a superb rearguard action with even strikers Kaleemullah and Hassan contributing with their defensive duties, clearing the ball from the box and trying to launch quick counterattacks.
But Nepal were coming closer to finding the goal that would help them earn a point from the game.
Jumanu forced another save from Yousuf with five minutes to go but in the first minute of injury time second-half substitute Bimal Gharti Magar scored with a cool finish off Thapa's cross to send the home crowd wild with joy.
The early game between India and Bangladesh also saw an injury time goal when Indian captain Sunil Chetri spared the defending champions’ blushes with a last-gasp strike after Bangladesh had taken the lead through Atiqur Rahman.
With Pakistan seemingly exiting the competition, Pakistan's former playmaker Mohammad Essa said that the team need to improve their finishing for future tournaments.
"Pakistan need a world-class finisher," Essa said. "We can't progress unless we have a good striker who can convert half-chances.
"There a number of good strikers in the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) like Shakir Lashari and Mohammad Rasool but unfortunately the Pakistan Football Federation doesn't see anything in them."
The performance of Hassan and Zesh in the game, however, extinguishes doubts that foreign-based players don't help the team much.
Ahead of the Nepal game, former PFF secretary Col Mujahidullah Tareen said the team needs to stop playing with foreign-based players if they want to win.
"I feel the team's downfall is because of the inclusion of foreign players as the local players get disappointed by that," he said in comments reported by APP.
But after seeing the harmony of the national team and a series of gritty performances, he may have to reconsider that.