Members of Nepal national football team pose for a group photo at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on Thursday, upon their return from participating in 2018 SAFF Suzuki Cup being held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nepal lost to Maldives in the semifinal 3-0 on Wednesday. | Photo: Republica
KATHMANDU, Sept 14: Nepal national football team returned back to the country on Thursday after a disappointing 2018 SAFF Suzuki Cup 3-0 semifinal loss at the hands of Maldives on Wednesday.
Nepal started the campaign with a 2-1 loss against Pakistan 2-1 in the first match of Group A. It had a staggering 75% possession and boasted 13 shots more than the winning team.
Nepal then found winning ways against Bhutan and Bangladesh, which also knocked the host team, unbeaten till then, out of the tournament from the group stages.
Against Bhutan, it won the game 4-0 building a foundation for the third game against Bangladesh dominating the game with a possession of 63% and 13 shots on target out of the 28 shots.
Likewise, Nepal looked balanced both in the defense and the midfield against Bangladesh as well as the strikers hitting the target in a 2-0 win. Having a possession of 51%, Nepal scored a goal each in either side of the half-time.
Nepal qualified to the semifinal of the competition after five years as the group winner and promising to be a ‘title contender’.
However, Nepal conceded the first goal of the semifinal against Maldives, who came to the last four as the Group B runner-up behind India, and more importantly, it did not win a single game or scored any goals in the group stages. After sharing the same point, the same goal difference, the same goal scored, and the same goal conceded against Sri Lanka, Maldives qualified to the last four on a coin toss and was underwhelming underdogs.
Nepal conceded just its third goal of the tournament in the ninth minute against Maldives with a curving freekick from Akram Abdul Ghanee which bounced just right in front of the keeper Kiran Chemjong.
Despite conceding, Nepal pressurized the Maldivians with a possession of 67%, but looked really sluggish in attack. Despite having two more shots than that of Maldives, Nepal struggled to get more shots on target and two near posts misses from strikers Bharat Khawas and Nawayug Shrestha in the either halves was one of the epitomes of a disappointing result.
Nepal then conceded two late goals through Ibrahim Waheed Hassan in the 84th and the 86th minute, and everything fell apart seeing the team fail to reach yet another final.
No luck, bad weather
Head coach Bal Gopal Maharjan looked upset and utterly disappointed talking to the media at the airport and expressed his concerns over the weather, luck and poor finishing in the loss.
Before the tournament began, Maharjan was confident of winning the SAFF title for the first time in Nepal’s football history with attacking and possession-based football but it did not pan out to be.
ANFA hurting football
The All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) led by current President Karma Tshering Sherpa, has been making bizarre decisions of late like the latest decision to organize the Martyr’s Memorial A-Division League without a relegation system. Nepal’s performance in the SAFF based on negligible quality domestic tournaments has to be admired.
Maharjan was named the acting head coach in late August this year, and had only started managing the team properly in midst of the 2018 Asian Games in which Nepal lost all its matches against Japan, Vietnam and Pakistan. He claimed to have only seven days to train the team ahead of the SAFF.
But, according to Maharjan, the real deal for the team was to win the SAFF and the domestic instability is much to be blamed as the ANFA has failed to organize the league for the past five years.
Before being appointed as the acting coach, Maharjan had said “In my opinion, a no-relegation league is a huge loss for a player because there will be no competition when there is no demotion to the second division.’’
Nepal was the highest goal scoring team going into the semifinal with seven goals in three group games.
The change in the team after the defeat to Pakistan saw Nepal become more confident in front of the goal with striker Bimal Gharti Magar scoring the most for Nepal with two, while Ananta Tamang, Sunil Bal, Nirajan Khadka, Bharat Khawas and Nawayug Shrestha adding one each.
Maharjan fielded Anjan Bista and Shrestha against Pakistan, but quickly changed his lineup keeping Khadka against Bangladesh and Bal in the last two matches. Shrestha, Bal and Shrestha all scored one each for Nepal.
But, against Maldives, the players struggled.
Despite creating major chances in the game, Bal’s influence could not result in a single goal as forward Khawas missed a tap-in in the first half, and Shrestha in the second.
Maharjan said, “We played attacking and possession-based football against Maldives too, but the finishing was the problem. Nawayug and Bharat missed chances from two yards, and that cost us a lot,’’ he added, “The early goal cost us the game and I had changed the tactics after the restart. Nothing was working and the condition of the ground also ruined the game. The weather did not favor us despite playing good football.’’
He added that he played with three different formations with 4-4-2 being the plan A, 4-5-1 being the plan B and 4-3-3 being the plan C when the team struggled to break the defense line of Maldives. The defense was also the problem for Nepal as it looked fragile after losing the ball in the middle of the park.
No time for change
Just as the Asian Games ended, Maharjan claimed that he had only seven days to change anything in the side.
“It was a hard situation as we had only seven days to train and select the players after the Asian Games. I chose the players who were fit and who played well. We can’t stay upset just because we lost the game, we need to focus on things to improve, and without the league, I guess this is a good achievement reaching the semifinal,’’ Maharjan explained, “The thing I am concerned about is that we missed on the final and of course, the trophy playing good football.’’
No league, no development
Skipper Biraj Maharjan played the first game against Pakistan, and was on the bench for all the other matches.
“The young players played really well. I played only the first game, but the main priority is to win and we did that until the semifinal. We had confusions in the first game, but we improved from the second. The training was good as well,’’ Maharjan added, “Football is a team game, and everyone helps the team. The weather did not favor us. Small things cost matches in football.’’
“We should focus on positive things, not only the negative things. There is a difference in captaining the side, and helping the team as a player only. We can’t say we are down just because we lost a match, and we also can’t say we are progressing just because we won a match, he further added, “Small things should be considered, and we should concentrate on all aspects.’’
More importantly, he also said, “League is a base to produce players and we have no league in the country for so many years, that’s the reason why we are behind. The ANFA and the government should concentrate on that aspect for good results.’’