by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: A title sealed, Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) looked forward to possible resumption of the league and, beyond that, potential Asian competition.
“We can’t wait for the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) to resume because the team’s really hungry for more,” KRL manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn, minutes after his side won the inaugural National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup title on Sunday.
Striker Murtuza Husain’s first-half goal proved to be the winner for Ayaz’s side as they beat Wapda 1-0 in the final here at the KPT Stadium.
“We’ve shown that we’re back where we belong … on top of Pakistan football,” star winger Mohammad Adil told Dawn. “Now we need to reclaim the PPFL title to rubberstamp that.”
The PPFL hasn’t been held since three-time defending champions KRL relinquished their title to fierce rivals K-Electric in the 2014-15 season with the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) splitting into two factions in the lead-up to its presidential elections in June 2015.
KRL have since had to make do with other tournaments.
Having won the PFF Cup — a tournament organised by the court-appointed PFF administrator in February last year, KRL came into the President’s Cup on the back of winning the All-Pakistan Malik Salahuddin Memorial Tournament in Multan in October.
But it’s the PPFL title which they are craving for — one that ensures entry into AFC competitions.
“We’re ready to win the PPFL,” captain Zia-us-Salam told Dawn. “We’ve rebuilt our team after the departure of some star names [including striker Kaleemullah and midfielders Saddam Hussain and Mahmood Khan] and we believe we can do it.”
Centre-back Mohammad Ahmed added: “We want to prove our mettle in AFC competitions. That’s our ultimate goal.”
KRL’s affinity with continental club competitions comes from their heartbreak of missing out on becoming the first Pakistan side to win an AFC title back in 2013.
Then, their star-studded team reached the final of the AFC President’s Cup — Asia’s third-tier club tournament at that time — only to lose to Turkmenistan’s Balkan FC.
A third successive PPFL title followed but after that the team disintegrated, only for Ayaz to raise another crop of promising youngsters he hopes can emulate their predecessors.
“I believe that this team is right up there,” he said, when asked if he believes his current team is as good as the class of 2012-2014.
Among those who have impressed at the President’s Cup is striker Murtuza.
Signed as a replacement for Pakistan’s star international striker Kaleem, Murtuza emerged as the top-scorer with seven goals.
“I want the PPFL to being as soon as possible since I’m in good form and when you’re going through that purple patch, you want to play as many games as possible,” he told Dawn.
After scoring twice — including a superb extra-time winner — in KRL’s enthralling 4-3 win against K-Electric in the semi-finals, Murtuza was his side’s star man again in a title clash which was largely uninspiring.
KRL largely neutered Wapda’s long-ball game, and their attack, by playing towering centre-back Mohammad Naveed.
“Naveed’s presence disturbed them totally and that’s why we played him today,” Ayaz said.
Yet, despite Naveed’s presence, Wapda had the better of the opening exchanges and almost took the lead on 10 minutes when goalkeeper Saqib Hanif made fingertip save to push a viciously dipping long-range shot by Zulfiqar Shah onto the bar.
Saqib’s moment of class spurred KRL on and they went ahead midway through the first half.
Adil found space on the left and fizzed in a cross which was put out by the Wapda defence.
And from the resulting corner, Adil found Murtuza close by and hugging the goalline, the striker darted past one Wapda defender before his shot was deflected into the path of Zia on the edge of the area.
Zia’s scuffed shot was cleared only till Umair Ali — another of the tournament’s bright lights — inside the box and his shot ricocheted off two Wapda defenders before falling to Murtuza who made no mistake.
“We think Murtuza was offside,” Wapda coach Khalid Butt told Dawn.
With the lead, KRL asserted their dominance and although Wapda tried to come back into the game, they stood tall to deny them a clear-cut opportunity while having several of their own to enhance the margin of their victory.
“We lost to a team which is technically superior to us and I have no problem with that,” Khalid, who has returned to eight-time domestic champions Wapda after a two-year sabbatical, added. “We are a young team but we want to be back up there. Just like KRL.”