KATHMANDU, Feb 24: Nepal´s most successful campaign in the AFC Challenge Cup dates back to the first edition of the tournament held in Bangladesh in 2006. Nepal had made it to the semifinals then and presented itself as a strong title contender before going down 3-4 against Sri Lanka in tie-breaker after a 1-1 draw in the regulation time.
Three more editions of the tournament have been held since then, but Nepal has failed to repeat that feat. The format of the tournament hosted under the umbrella of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for second-tier national teams of the continent was changed from the second edition.
In the first edition, all the participating teams played both qualifying (group) and knockout stage at the same venue in Bangladesh. But from the second edition, qualifying rounds were held separately and eight teams made to the final round. The teams that qualified for the final rounds played in league-cum-knockout format to secure berths in the semifinals.
Nepal biggest achievement after the first edition has been to cross the group stage. In the previous three editions, Nepal has crossed the group stage twice -- in 2008 and 2012 -- to reach the finals. The last time Nepal made it to the final rounds was under the guidance of British coach Graham Roberts in 2011. Nepal had entered the final round as runner-up from Group D, behind North Korea, then.
But in the finals, Nepal finished at the bottom of the table in Group A without earning a point and scoring goal.
For the current edition Nepal has been drawn along with Northern Mariana Island, Palestine and South Asian neighbor Bangladesh in the Group D qualifiers to begin from Saturday at the Dasharath Stadium, Kathmandu.
The greatest challenge Nepal faces is to cross the group stage and improve the scoring ability of players. Nepali players, especially forwards, have failed to score in recent years.
In the first edition, Nepal had scored eight goals and conceded four. In the next edition two years later, Nepal scored seven goals and conceded six. In the 2006 and 2008 editions of Challenge Cup, Nepal scored 15 goals in total and conceded 10.
In the qualifiers of the third edition in 2009, Nepal crashed out from the group stage after playing a 0-0 draw with Palestine and 1-1 draw with Kyrgyzstan on home ground. In the last qualifiers, Nepal beat Afghanistan 1-0, played a 0-0 draw with Sri Lanka and lost 1-0 to North Korea. In the finals held in Kathmandu a year ago, Nepal lost all three matches of the group stage going down 2-0 to Palestine, 1-0 to Maldives and 3-0 to Turkmenistan. In the last two editions, Nepal scored two and conceded eight goals.
Lack of scoring ability has been the biggest setback for the team in the Challenge Cup as well as in the SAFF Championship and other international tournaments. In the friendlies against Pakistan held a few weeks ago in Kathmandu, Nepal lost both the matches with identical scores of 1-0 despite dominating ball possession.