Pakistan put on a spirited performance and even scored — at the wrong end though — as they lost their opening Group ‘A’ match at the SAFF Championship to arch-rivals India 1-0 in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Sunday.
Captain Samar Ishaq’s misjudged clearance in the 14th minute ended up in the back of the Pakistan goal as India scraped past their neighbours by the skin of their teeth in a pulsating match which for long stretches was dominated by Pakistan.
Nonetheless, Pakistan’s attacking intent — a far cry from when Zavisa Milosavljevic was coach — was hailed by Pakistan’s former coaches and players.
“The team’s performance was a breath of fresh air,” Pakistan’s former coach Tariq Lutfi said after the game regarding the strategy laid out by Pakistan coach Shahzad Anwar.
“Pakistan have come out of their defensive era and we gave the defending champions a run for their money so it’s a good sign for the future.”
Shahzad is leading the team at the event following the sacking of Milosavljevic days before the SAFF Championship. Formerly the assistant coach to Milosavljevic, he's been given charge of the team's affairs with incoming Bahraini coach Moahmmad Al Shamlan acting as consultant for the regional event
Pakistan’s former playmaker Mohammad Essa also hailed Pakistan’s performance.
“The new coach understands players well,” Essa said. “Players are under less pressure now than they were under Milosavljevic.
“This is a definite improvement for the team and hopefully we can do well in the coming matches.”
Pakistan now face hosts Nepal on Tuesday before wrapping up their campaign against Bangladesh on Thursday. A good result in the coming matches could pave the way for the team to reach the semis.
They can take a lot of heart from their performance against India.
India started strongly at the Dasharath Rangala Stadium and put Pakistan into early pressure with a flurry of corners.
It didn’t take them long to take the lead when a cross from Indian captain Sunil Chetri caused mayhem in the Pakistan penalty area and Samar inadvertently hoofed the ball past Pakistan goalkeeper Yousuf Butt.
The goal spurred Pakistan into action and almost immediately Hassan Bashir drew a foul by Indian goalkeeper Subrata Paul before missing the ensuing free-kick by some distance.
Hassan almost atoned for his earlier miss when a clever back-heel from him released Mohammad Riaz but he struck wide of Paul’s goal in the 23rd minute.
Hassan was involved in almost every attack mustered by the Pakistan team and the closest he came to scoring was in the 35th when his terrific strike beat a fully-stretched Paul but came back of the upright.
Hassan’s fellow foreign-based player Adnan Ahmed, who plays for Droylsden in Blue Square Bet League in England, was the next to come close to leveling the scores but he headed just inches wide in the 42nd.
Last seaon’s top-scorer in the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL), Kaleemullah then drew a superb save from Paul with a long-range strike in the very next minute.
Pakistan started the second-half the way they ended the first with Kaleemullah’s Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) team-mate Mohammad Adil striking an angled shot just wide in the 49th.
It was all Pakistan at that moment with the Indians finding themselves at the end of a well-oiled Pakistan machine desperate to score the equaliser as Riaz had an effort saved on the hour mark.
With Pakistan going on the attack, space began opening at the back for India to exploit.
Chetri had a glorious opportunity to double India’s advantage in the 78th when he fired wide from close range before missing another chance to put the game beyond Pakistan’s reach when his strike went inches above the cross-bar five minutes from time before they held on for victory which which put them level on three points at the top of Group ‘A’.