The month of March 2015 will be a testing period for Pakistan football team’s Bahraini coach Mohammad Shamlan as the country will be appearing in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the 2016 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers.
On March 12 and 17, Pakistan’s senior team will appear in the 2018 World Cup first round qualifying play-offs on home and away basis for which the draws will be unveiled on February 10.
The draws for the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers, which also serve as qualifiers for the 2016 Rio Olympics, have already been released.
In the Under-23 Championship Qualifiers Group B, which will be hosted by Pakistan most probably at Punjab Stadium, Lahore, Pakistan have been placed with Jordon, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
A total of 43 teams have been drawn into ten groups, with the ten group-winners and five best runners-up qualifying for the final round to be hosted by Qatar from January 12-30, 2016.
From there top three nations will make it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Green-shirts will begin their campaign on March 23 against Turkmenistan, followed by their encounters against Jordon on March 25, Kuwait on 27 and Kyrgyzstan on 31.
Both the World Cup and Olympic qualifiers are extremely important for Pakistan. As Pakistan have never moved beyond the first round in the World Cup qualifiers, doing so would always be highly appreciated. And this would give Pakistan a chance to face tough teams in the second round which would help them learn for the future.
But the Under-23 Championship qualifiers are even more important for Shamlan’s charges as the Bahraini has been preparing the boys of this age group since taking charge as Pakistan’s coach in August 2013.
The team has been given a load of exposure during the last one-and-a-half years and it is expected that the lot will click in the qualifiers in their home conditions.
Shamlan knows the importance of these competitions. “I think the under-23 event is more important for me than the World Cup qualifiers as we have invested a lot on the youth and have trained them well. I hope my charges will produce positive results,” Shamlan told ‘The News on Sunday’.
“Although we have tough teams in our group like Jordon and Kuwait as both countries have been investing heavily in football and have good standard, I am confident we will give them tough time,” Shamlan said.
For both these assignments Shamlan is going to hold a camp at Islamabad from January 25. Both the teams will be prepared at the same time. Pakistan’s senior team will meet Afghanistan in an international friendly on February 6 at the Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad.
A few foreign-based players such as former Fulham defender Zeeshan Rehman, Danish striker Hasan Bashir, Otis Khan and Sami Malik are on the radar of Shamlan. If the coach wants to produce better results he should contact maximum of quality foreign-based stuff as well as home-grown players.
This time Pakistan will have a much better senior team as Kaleemullah, Mohammad Adil, Saddam Hussain and Mohammad Ahmed must have improved a lot because of their exposure to foreign leagues.
The former three are playing for Kyrgyzstan’s champions Dordoi Bishkek, while Ahmed has been playing for Bahrain’s ISA Town FC.
Shamlan is lucky to have some players who could be fielded in both the senior team as well as in the Olympic team (under-23).
Beating India in the two-match series in Bangalore in August last year and giving tough time to former World Cuppers China and North Korea in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games must have boosted the morale of Pakistan players.
Shamlan has also invited to the camp some new players whom he spotted in the Pakistan Premier Football League.
They are goalkeepers Shehbaz (Army) and Ghulam Nabi (K-Electric), Naved (KPT), Murtaza Hussain (KRL), Najeeb-ur-Rehman (Army), Faheem Shah (KPT), Habib-ur-Rehman (PIA), Mohammad Tahir (Muslim FC), Shehram Babar (PIA), Mohammad Sufyan (PAF), Faheemullah (Army) and Gul Mohammad (Afghan FC).
But sadly in-form international striker Mohammad Rasool has once again been ignored. Rasool is in golden touch, having scored as many as 22 goals in K-Electric’s title triumph in the PPFL.
Shamlan does not like Chitral-born Rasool because he does not run enough, but the player is adept in converting chances. At least he should be tested in the friendly against Afghanistan.
Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is also trying to send the team to at least a couple of countries for practice matches ahead of the twin assignments.
It will be interesting to see how Shamlan handles both the teams as they have different strengths and characters.
In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, Pakistan failed to advance beyond the first round. In their away leg in Dhaka, the Green-shirts were humiliated by Bangladesh 3-0 before the second leg in Lahore ended in a goalless draw. Tariq Lutfi was Pakistan’s coach.
In the previous Under-22 Championship qualifiers (now Under-23 championship qualifiers), held in Saudi Arabia in 2012 Pakistan put up a disappointing performance under their Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljevic. Pakistan ended sixth in the six-team group.
Pakistan lost to Saudi Arabia 0-1, held Sri Lanka 0-0, lost to Kyrgyzstan 0-2, to Syria 0-4 and to Palestine 0-1.
Zavisa’s lot had also been given ample exposure by the PFF before fielding in the event.
Shamlan is keen to give some positive results to Pakistan before quitting as the country’s coach in July this year when his two-year contract expires.
The PFF is trying to hire his services for two more years but sources close to Shamlan say that he would not like to renew his contract.
If he quits, it will be unfortunate as the Bahraini has been very productive for Pakistan’s football. He has not only been working hard on the national team but has also been very helpful to the country in producing more qualified coaches.