Pakistan’s much awaited Singapore trip – the team’s first proper senior international outing since the 2011 SAFF Championship disappointment almost a year ago – came to a humbling conclusion.
A well-oiled and well-prepared Singaporean side, gearing up for the prestigious AFF Suzuki Cup 2012, showed some key weaknesses of the Pakistan national team. After a 0-1 loss at the hands of a Singapore Selection side (U23s), the international friendly finished 4-0 in favour of the hosts on 19 November.
It was evidence of the fact that the fortunes of the national team will not change by simply stocking up the team with overseas-based players. Those players need maximum opportunities to play more matches together to form a good combination.
The discovery of Denmark-based strikers Mohammad Ali (BK Avatra) and Hassan Bashir (HIK), who both came close to scoring on debut, were one of the few positives from the tour.
There is a lot to ponder for the next set of games. While local players such as Saeed Ahmed (Muslim FC Chaman) have shown promise, ‘flat track bullies’ such as Kaleemullah (KRL) and Muhammad Rasool (KESC) have struggled to show their domestic scoring prowess at international stage. Kaleemullah has yet to score since graduating from the U19s to the senior side in 2010 and topping the PPFL scoring charts effortlessly.
It was unfortunate for former Manchester United trainee Adnan Ahmed (Nelson FC) to miss the main game due to an injury he had sustained in the loss to Singapore Selection side. The midfielder would have no doubt tried to control the tempo of the game, something which the KRL duo of Muhammad Adil and Zia-us-Salam could not cope with at all.
It also showed Pakistan’s coach Zavisa Milosavljevic that without Adnan, Pakistan’s midfield is paper thin and retaining possession and creating chances a worry. Once Adnan is available for next game, Zavisa must look to team him up with a midfield partner of similar calibre.
Another young Pakistani-origin player Luke Dean, formerly at Bradford City, seems to be an ideal double act who could work with Adnan. Also, the most experienced but now low on pace Amjad Iqbal (Bradford Park Avenue) can move into defence.
Luke has been rock solid for his new club Harrogate Town AFC in the Blue Square Bet North (Conference North), collecting various Man of the Match performances alongside player of the month in August. He now plays in same league as Shabir Khan (Worcester City) and Amjad.
KRL’s Rizwan Asif and Kaleemullah can provide ample support on the wings if Zavisa decides to stick with 4-4-2.
With Wales-based defensive favourite Atif Bashir out for long term due to injury, Zavisa has a few options at the back.
While some may say, with overseas players, Pakistan concedes more goals such as in 2011 AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers and 2014 WC Qualifiers vs Bangladesh, the reality of the situation is that it is a combination of these players and the locally based ones that leads to such a situation. The partnership just does not work because of the limited time these play together as a unit.
The 2009 SAFF Cup showed that when playing together at the back these overseas players can do a great job. In the Cup they held firm in defense and did not concede even a single goal in 3 games. The line-up included three overseas-based players out of the four at the back. They were Shabir Khan, Atif Bashir and Amjad Iqbal.
Zavisa now has Danish Superliga’s Nabil Aslam (AC Horsens) at his disposal alongside Zesh Rehman and Shabir Khan, but what is lacking is leadership and experience. For that he must turn to Amjad Iqbal. The science lecturer maybe 31 and has broken his leg twice in last two years but he is still as fit as ever and more experienced with natural ability to lead.
Pairing Amjad and Nabil at heart of the defence the coach can make use of Zesh's attacking instinct by playing him right back and Shabir as left back.
While the youngster Omar Malik from Norwegian side FK Tønsberg has shown promise, he needs more opportunities with the team to come to terms with what is required from him. Coming from rural Norway and 2nd Division football he is new to this stage but there is no doubt about the talent and ability of Omar.
There is also Yaqoob Butt, the brother of goalkeeper Yousuf, playing in 2nd Division of Denmark after returning from a long injury lay-off. The 6’4 Yaqoob is a tough tackling and versatile player who can operate as a defender or a defensive midfielder.
Some may say that this type of approach will hurt domestic talent but the matter of fact is not much of it is up to the required standard. The players can go on tours and play against international sides but they cannot improve very much due to the substandard league they play in. No matter what a national team coach does with them, they will go back into same old crash-bang routine with their departments at home. This is why the locals and overseas players must compete for places for the best players to get the nod.
Pakistan in this regard should learn from Philippines who have extensively utilized this approach for short and medium term since only a handful of their local players are good enough to compete with the foreign-based players from Europe.
The Philippines have gone from being whipping boys of ASEAN region to hot favourites for the regional competitions because they have decided to pick the best Filipinos players from all over the world to form the best team. It shouldn’t be about local versus foreigner, but it should be about putting the best side out for Pakistan.
Just because one is from Europe doesn’t mean he should be an automatic choice nor should be the local just because he plays for an influential government department. Only genuine competition for starting spots, as well as more regular international friendlies for senior team, can gradually help Pakistani football.