AL AHSA (Saudi Arabia): Having seen his side go down 4-0 to Saudi Arabia, conceding two of those goals at the start of each half, Pakistan coach Stephen Constantine lamented his charges lost his focus at the worst time during their 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Pakistan, appearing in the second round of Asian qualifying for the first time, conceded in the sixth and 47th minute of their Group ‘G’ opener at the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium — Saleh Al Shehri capitalising both times, his second coming from the penalty spot — before the Saudis scored two more in stoppage time.
“It was always going to be a difficult game for us,” Constantine told a news conference after the match.
“Considering where we were two months ago, we didn’t deserve to lose 4-0,” added the 61-year-old Englishman, who masterminded Pakistan’s historic first-round victory over Cambodia last month.
“We conceded at the start of both halves, which is probably the worst time to concede goals. If you face a team as good as the Saudi team, you must always be focused. We have players whose primary sport is not football. Some of them do not remember the last time they played this game.”
The top two teams in each of the nine qualifying groups advance to the third round of qualifying for the 48-team World Cup in United States, Canada and Mexico as well as securing their spots at the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Pakistan face Tajikistan in their second game on Tuesday and Constantine, who’d already said his realistic target was the qualify for the Asian Cup with the bottom two teams going into the next qualifying round of the continental showpiece, admitted his team have their work cut out.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the best teams in Asia, so I asked the players to play without fear,” he said. “Our chances are not easy, especially as we face strong teams, and we must prepare well for the Tajikistan match.”
Pakistan’s performance, after they kept out waves of Saudi attacks especially in the first half — with the hosts enjoying 74 percent possession overall, saw them earn a word of praise from opposition manager Roberto Mancini.
“There is no easy match in the world of football, and I think that the Pakistani team played a good match, and today we performed well, and came out with a positive result, and it is important that we start our journey with a victory,” Mancini, who guided his native Italy to the European Championships crown in 2021, told reporters after the match.
The 58-year-old, who was without the injured reigning AFC Players of the Year Salem Al Dawsari, fielded a new-look squad and also omitted Firas Al-Burikan, one of the top marksmen in the Saudi Pro League.
But Al Shehri, who has had little playing time for Al-Hilal this season, proved lethal.
“In the past friendly matches, I was able to learn about the players’ performance, and the national team is currently a mixture of youth and experienced players,” he said.
Mancini had overseen three defeats and a draw in his four friendly games in charge of Saudi Arabia since taking over in August but said he felt the heavy downpour in the first half was a good omen.
“In Italy, the rain is a good omen for us,” the former Manchester City manager said, “…and we achieved what we wanted from the match.”
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2023