by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: It was all according to plan for Tariq Lutfi till the 25th minute But then Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) unraveled spectacularly, losing 4-2 to Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and denying their coach a chance to get one over his former club.
Both sides had already booked their spots in the quarter-finals and KRL advanced as Group ‘B’ winners ahead of SSGC in the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup on Sunday.
While SSGC were flattened by KRL, the other gas team — also in the country’s second division — did no harm to their profile.
Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) played out an entertaining 3-3 draw with Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions K-Electric, before prevailing 9-8 in a shootout to claim top spot in Group ‘C’ ahead of their more illustrious opponents.
The headline match of the day, though, was Lutfi squaring off against the side he made Pakistan football’s most dominant force during his four years in-charge.
KRL has seen lots of changes in personnel since they let Lutfi go in 2015 but they still bear his imprint.
“We still play the way we did during Lutfi’s time,” KRL manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn after the match here at the KPT Stadium.
“The team has come a long way and we’ve seen lots of players come and go but now it’s ticking for us and we hope to get better.”
The plan Lutfi had set for SSGC ticked in the opening moments and they even took a shock lead against the four-time PPFL champions.
On a counterattack in the 10th minute, KRL defenders hesitated on a long ball and Saadullah headed it into the path of the onrushing Saeed Ahmed to open the scoring from close range.
Lutfi didn’t show much emotion but deep down inside he must’ve been pleased. This was the ideal start for him to get a measure of revenge against the side that let him go despite winning three PPFL titles in four seasons with them.
In the lead-up to the game he had downplayed all the hype surrounding his first competitive fixture against KRL, saying his second-division side wasn’t equipped enough to challenge his former side and needs revamping.
Now though was a chance.
“The start was ideal for us,” Lutfi told Dawn afterwards. “The key after that was how we reacted.”
The reaction wasn’t what Lutfi demanded.
“We had them under pressure and we let them go,” he said.
The key moment came 15 minutes later when their defence allowed Murtuza Hussain to level matters, the KRL striker going past both their centre-backs before calmly finishing past goalkeeper Ehsanullah.
On the touchline, Lutfi could sense the momentum was turning. And after the hour mark, KRL turned on the style.
Murtuza put them ahead in the 62nd with a superb dinked finish over Ehsan after being sent clean on goal by an exquisite pass from midfielder Umair Ali, who was playing against his former side.
Pakistan international defender Mohammad Ahmed then made it 3-1 a minute later with a bullet header from a corner — a goal that sparked a reaction from Lutfi as he substituted two of his team’s star players, Ehsan and Saad.
The substitutions didn’t change the tide and Umair scored KRL’s fourth in the 67th when he was put through by Murtuza and he rounded off the goalkeeper before passing the ball into the net.
Lutfi knew his side had been undone by a KRL masterclass. His retribution will have to wait. But his side did well to salvage some pride by pulling a goal back in the 85th thanks to a penalty by Hameed Khan.
Penalties were needed to decide the other match on Sunday after both SNGPL and K-Electric finished level at the top of their section after a thrilling game.
SNGPL stunned K-Electric by racing into a 3-0 lead by the 65th minute but striker Mohammad Rasool led the comeback for the PPFL champions, scoring a hat-trick in the last 20 minutes, atoning for a penalty miss early on.
“It was unfortunate that we couldn’t win but this is a huge result for a team which we started just three years ago,” SNGPL coach Khalid Khan told Dawn after the game.
“We finished top of a section which had Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and K-Electric and this is a big honour for us. This result will hopefully inspire us to go further in the future.”
It took SNGPL just 14 minutes to open the scoring, Shahzad Mehmood turning in a low cross with his head.
They went 2-0 ahead in the 40th when Syed Ghazi got on the end of a counterattack and slammed the ball home from inside the box.
K-Electric were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half-time but goalkeeper Mohammad Khalid made a spectacular save by tipping a Rasool’s effort on the bar and out.
SNGPL were in wonderland in the 65th when Sadabahar made it 3-0 with a looping header but that was all that needed to kick-start K-Electric and Rasool.
He stabbed home from close range in 70th, tapped home his second in the 80th and showed great predatory instincts to tuck away Mohammad Riaz’s cross in injury time to complete his treble and with both teams having won 2-1 against PIA, force penalties to decide the group winners.
After the opening 17 penalties were scored, Khalid parried away Hidayatullah’s weak effort and secure top spot for his side and a quarter-final against Group ‘A’ runners-up Wapda.
K-Electric will face surprise Group ‘A’ winners Karachi United.
“We showed some complacency against SNGPL,” K-Electric coach Akber Ali told Dawn. “We need be careful against United.”
The other quarter-finals pit Lutfi’s SSGC against NBP while KRL’s reward for topping Group ‘B’ is a clash against Group ‘D’ runners-up Karachi Port Trust (KPT).