Umaid Wasim – DAWN
KARACHI: It was a case of so close yet so far for Khan Research Laboratories (KRL).
In their bid to become the first team from Pakistan to win a continental club competition, Tariq Lutfi’s men lost by the narrowest of margins.
A 1-0 defeat to Turkmenistan’s Balkan FC in the final of the AFC President’s Cup — Asia’s third-tier club competition — saw aspirations of several of their players go up in smoke.
“The players are inconsolable at this point in time,” Lutfi told Dawn from the Malaysian state of Malacca at the end of their game. But they’ve played really well and I have no complaints for them.
“It is still an achievement to be the first side from Pakistan to reach the final of an Asian tournament.”
Having held Balkan back for majority of the match, KRL eventually conceded when Amir Gurbani found space in the box to connect well with a header and guide it past custodian Saqib Hanif in the 87th minute at the Hang Jebat Stadium.
Minutes before that KRL’s ace striker Kaleemullah, who scored in both their wins in Group ‘B’, missed a gilt-edged chance when he shot just inches wide.
“It was a pressure game and I think the pressure got to the boys when they got in front of goal,” Lutfi said. “The performance shows that if our boys get proper exposure, we can compete with the best.”
Compete with the best, they did.
They were splendid in their 1-0 win over two-time champions Dordoi Bishkek in their Group ‘B’ opener before they overwhelmed Palestinian side Hilal Al-Quds 2-0 in their second game to finish top of the group.
Even Balkan FC coach Rahim Kurbanmamedov admitted his side were lucky.
“KRL are a very strong team,” Kurbanmamedov said in his post-match press-conference. “It was a lucky win for us as anything could’ve happened in the closing stages.”
With Gurbani’s late goal, Balkan sought to protect their lead. They kicked the balls away for throw-ins as KRL searched for an equaliser that would’ve sent the match into extra-time.
That was not to be.
As referee Ameer Al-Janebi of the UAE blew the final whistle, KRL players sank down to their knees.
For their star players like Kaleemullah and Mohammad Adil, it was their desire to win the title. That would’ve brought them moves to bigger clubs abroad.
But Lutfi believes that KRL are now well-equipped to come back and challenge for the title next year.
“It was a chastening experience for us this year,” he said. “Winning the President’s Cup is a reachable target and hopefully we can qualify for it next year and win it.”
In order to be at next year’s President’s Cup, KRL will have to defend their Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) title. They begin their campaign on Thursday against Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited (ZTBL).
“Hopefully, this defeat will add to their desire to win the PPFL for a third straight season,” Lutfi concluded.