KARACHI: The task is bigger than last season’s and the prize is also bigger than last season’s.
With this season’s AFC President’s Cup first round providing an entry into the playoffs for the AFC Cup, Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) will bid to create further history when they leave for Asia’s third-tier club tournament on Sunday.
The Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions, however, will be without two of their stars of the last campaign in which they became the first side from the country to reach the final of a continental competition.
Tariq Lutfi’s side have since seen attackers Mohammed Adil and Kaleemullah join Kyrgyz giants Dordoi FC while they are also set to be without influential midfielders Saddam Hussain and Bilawal-ur-Rehman who have been called up by Pakistan coach Mohammed Al Shamlan for the national team’s tour to Palestine.
And as they leave for Colombo looking to advance from an all-South Asian Group ‘A’, Lutfi is marginally optimistic about his side’s chances.
“This side is of course weaker than the team we had last year [which lost the final to Balkan FC] but we’re trying to do our best,” Lutfi told Dawn on Friday.
“We’ve tried hard in training, especially without our best six players [with captain Samar Ishaq and winger Saadullah also out].
“We’re not going there to defend. We will attack no matter whether we have personnel missing because this is the chance for our other players to show how good they are.
“The team has gelled well despite the absences and had good results in friendly matches which will boost our confidence. Most notably in last week’s friendly against the Pakistan national team where they ran out 1-0 winners courtesy Zia-us-Salam’s strike.
“That win certainly has given the players a lot of confidence because to win against the national team is huge,” Lutfi added.
“We’ve spoken about formations we’ll be playing with, whether it’s 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1. And I have told the players they have to individually give their best regardless of the formation.”
KRL face Bangladesh’s Sheikh Russel KC in their opening Group ‘A’ game on Wednesday at the Colombo Sugathadasa Stadium.
And while KRL have players missing, their opponents come into the tournament having sacked their coach Maruful Haq ten days ago.
Maruf was sacked with his side suffering from a downturn in fortunes which saw them sit third in the Bangladesh Premier League and was replaced by Montenegrin Dragan Gjukanovic.
“I had collected the footages of all three of Sheikh Russel opponents of the AFC President’s Cup and set the players’ up for the tournament,” Maruf said at the time of his sacking.
And KRL are looking to take full advantage.
“Sacking a coach before the tournament unsettles it pretty badly,” Lutfi said. “Usually the opening game sets the tone for the rest of the tournament and we’re lucky that we’ll be facing a team which might be unsettled first up.”
Sheikh Russel are making their first appearance in the competition and will be looking to end Bangladesh’s miserable run.
Dhaka giants Abahani Ltd have featured in the AFC President’s Cup on five occasions till date but have never qualified for the second round.
“We know Pakistani players are physically stronger than us but the other two sides are not that strong. So it is important for us to start well,” Sheikh Russel captain Biplob Bhattacharya told local daily New Age on Thursday.
Lutfi’s side face Bhutan’s Uygen Academy in the second match on Friday before rounding off their campaign against hosts Air Force SC of Sri Lanka next Sunday with both teams, like Sheikh Russel, making their debuts in the competition.
Uygen Academy come to the tournament having won the Bhutan National Football League in sensational fashion last year when they clinched it by a single point on the final day of last season.
Air Force SC won Sri Lanka’s Dialog Champions League last season and will be looking to make home advantage count.
Salma Mohamed Namshan from Saudi Arabia and Zeng Dan have been appointed by the AFC as match commissioners while nine AFC referees and assistants will be in Sri Lanka as match officials for the tournament.
The top two teams from the group advance to the next round where they will be joined by group winners and runners-up from Groups ‘B’ and ‘C’.