by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: There were seven minutes either side of halftime which decided the second semi-final.
Wapda striker Arif Mehmood scored the equaliser and set up the other for Mohammad Bilal in the 52nd minute to inspire his team into the final of the inaugural NBP President’s Cup with a 2-1 win over Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) on Friday.
SSGC too had their seven minutes — of stoppage time — but failed to take three chances which fell their way in the end.
“The referee tried his best to take SSGC into the final,” fumed Wapda coach Khalid Butt after the match, referring to injury time which was signalled as six minutes but was stretched to more than seven.
“This is the problem with referees in our country, they are biased towards teams and today [referee] Javed Bangash tried his best to force an equaliser in the end,” added Khalid while speaking to Dawn.
In the end though, Wapda goalkeeper Bilal Khalid was the star of the final seven minutes here at the KPT Stadium — pulling off near miraculous saves to protect his side’s slender lead.
Now, Khalid hopes Bilal and his team can stop a rampant Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) side in Sunday’s final.
“Technically, the KRL team is a lot superior,” Khalid said. “But we’re ready to fight till the end for the title.”
Second-division SSGC were undeterred by their underdog status against the four-time Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions and took the game to Wapda in a frantic opening 15 minutes.
SSGC goalkeeper Ehsanullah was called into an early save by a fierce Arif strike while Saeed Ahmed volleyed just over at the other end with a spectacular overhead kick.
And in the 27th minute, SSGC took a shock lead.
Wapda failed to deal properly with a corner and the ball fell to Hameed Khan just inside the box and the centre-back fired home.
The goal sparked Wapda into action and after missing a couple of chances, their talisman struck on the stroke of full-time.
A quick counter-attack caught the SSGC defence on the hop and Arif superbly controlled a low cross from the left with his right foot before rifling it beyond Ehsanullah with his left.
Seven minutes into the second-half, another quick break gave Wapda the lead.
Wapda won the ball at the centre of the pitch and Jadeed Khan Pathan sprayed the ball to Arif on the right and the 33-year-old skipped past the full-back to send in a vicious low cross which was turned in by Bilal at the far post.
The goal opened the game and both teams had chances but the best fell to SSGC, who could’ve forced extra-time right at the death.
Zakir Lashari’s control let him down when one-on-one with Bilal before Saeed was twice denied by superb diving saves from the Wapda goalkeeper.
“This was the ceiling for my team,” SSGC coach Tariq Lutfi told Dawn.
“We need to improve a lot to really challenge the big boys,” added the former Pakistan coach, whose appointment has caused optimism that he can steer SSGC to the top-tier.
“We weren’t composed in the final third otherwise we could’ve won the game but the lack in quality showed as we missed clear-cut chances.”