by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: For a spot in the final, Kaleemullah will have to outdo the team which made him Pakistan football’s biggest superstar.
In the latest edition of a longstanding rivalry, K-Electric (KE) and Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) will clash on Thursday to decide which team advances to title match of the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup.
For this engagement, however, KE will have the services of Pakistan international striker Kaleem, whose goals inspired KRL to four Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) titles in five seasons from 2009-2014.
Kaleem was back to his scoring best on Tuesday when his brace inspired KE to a 4-1 win over Karachi United in the first quarter-final before KRL cruised past Karachi Port Trust (KPT) 3-0 to reach the semi-finals.
“It would be a difficult game for me because I still love KRL,” Kaleem told Dawn after the match. “I couldn’t be what I am without them. It’s going to be an emotional match for me but I’ll try to do my job professionally.”
Having left KRL for Kyrgyz giants FC Dordoi after guiding them to a third successive PPFL title, Kaleem was named the Shoro Top League’s best player in his first season for the Bishkek side as his 18 goals guided them to the title.
A year later he joined United Soccer League (USL) club Sacramento Republic in a high-profile transfer and after six months in California, the 24-year-old left for fellow USL side Tulsa Roughnecks.
With just one goal in a season and half in the United States, Kaleem joined KE on a short-term contract last month and has immediately found his range on returning to Pakistan.
Having scored once in the group stage, he scored with two well-timed headers either side of goals by two other former KRL players, Mehmood Khan and Mohammad Rasool.
“Earlier [in the tournament], I arrived a bit rusty as I hadn’t been training,” Kaleem said. “But after two matches [in the group stage], I’ve found my form and fitness and hopefully I can continue in this vein.”
During Kaleem’s time at KRL, they enjoyed a fierce rivalry with KE — twice beating them in the National Challenge Cup final and twice condemning them to runners-up spot in the PPFL.
And in the first season without their star frontman, KRL relinquished the PPFL crown to KE — incidentally the last edition of the domestic league as the game came to a standstill in the country following a dispute in the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) which broke into two factions ahead of its presidential elections in June 2015.
The inaugural edition of the 12-team President’s Cup has helped revive the game and has seen second-division sides like United punch above their weight against the country’s top sides.
Having beaten four-time PPFL winners Wapda on their way to the last-eight, United took the game to KE in a breathless first half at the KPT Stadium as the PPFL champions struggled to find their rhythm.
But KE hit their stride in the second half and with talismanic playmaker Mohammad Essa coming on as a substitute, they took the lead in the 48th.
Essa’s driven pass from the left caused a melee in the United box and found its way to Mehmood who tucked it away from just inside the box.
It was 2-0 nine minutes later as Mohammad Riaz whipped in a low cross and Kaleem got down to head it in at the near post.
Nauman drilled in a low shot from the edge of the box in the 70th to give United some hope but Kaleem responded almost immediately with a firm towering header from a corner to all but seal the result.
It was a goal that knocked the wind out of United’s sails and Rasool added more gloss to the scoreline when he finished off a quick counterattack with a tap-in eight minutes from time.
“The players showed that we can turn on the style when we need to,” player-coach Essa, another former KRL player, told Dawn. “Now we’ve to do the same against KRL.”
Since relinquishing the PPFL title to KE, KRL have come back strongly to win two big titles.
They claimed the National Challenge Cup title in April 2015 before winning the PFF Cup — a tournament organised by the court-appointed PFF administrator — in February last year.
And they showed they are a team in form by rolling over KPT with new signing Mohammad Imran scoring twice in five first-half minutes.
“It was a good match for us,” manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn. “It’s never easy to face KPT on their home ground but we had a very convincing victory which boosts our morale ahead of the semi-final.”
Striker Murtuza Hussain had a goal ruled out for offside but moments later his shot on goal saw Imran open the scoring in the 40th minute with a tap-in from close range.
Imran’s second goal, however, was a stunner.
Receiving Murtuza’s pass on the right almost 25 yards away from goal, he took one touch to control the ball before wrapping his right foot around it to give the goalkeeper no chance.
“I looked up and saw that I had a good chance,” Imran, who hit the crossbar with a header early on, told Dawn. “The moment I made contact, I knew it was going in. It was such a sweet connection.”
KRL made it 3-0 three minutes into the second-half with Murtuza getting the goal his tireless performance upfront deserved.
He darted in at the near post to tuck in a cross from Izharullah following a flowing move right through the heart of the KPT defence before both teams struck the woodwork late on.
Signed as a replacement for Kaleem, Murtuza now comes face-to-face with the Pakistan striker.
“I’d love to score against KE and guide our team into the final,” Murtuza told Dawn. “But I hope to do the talking on the pitch on Thursday. It’s a match worthy of a final.”