by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: In his first tournament as coach of Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), Tariq Lutfi will face Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) — a side he made the country’s undisputed best during his four years at the helm.
KRL might be a shadow of that side which won three successive Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) titles during Lutfi’s time but the former Pakistan coach still said it would be a tough match for his SSGC side after they were drawn together in Group ‘B’ of the inaugural National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup on Monday.
“Despite the changes in personnel [since Lutfi left], KRL remain one of the top sides of the country,” Lutfi told Dawn on the eve of the tournament which kicks off here at the KPT Stadium on Tuesday.
“They are a team which continuously evolves and has stayed a powerhouse of football despite several key departures.”
Lutfi joined KRL in 2011 and apart from overseeing their domestic dominance; he also took them into the final of the AFC President’s Cup — then Asia’s third-tier club competition.
His fourth season, however, saw departures of key players including striker Kaleemullah, winger Mohammad Adil and midfielder Saddam Hussain and KRL relinquished the PPFL title to arch-rivals K-Electric in 2014-2015, which ultimately led to Lutfi’s departure.
The PPFL hasn’t been held since due to a dispute in the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), which broke into two factions in the lead-up to its presidential elections in June 2015.
But KRL have since regained their status as top dogs in Pakistan football by winning two of four tournaments that have been played over the last 18 months.
They won the PFF Cup, organised by the court-appointed PFF administrator, in February last year before winning the All Pakistan Malik Salahuddin Memorial Tournament in Multan in October where they beat Wapda in the final.
The other two football tournaments, the Rangers Aman Football Tournament here in March and the All-Pakistan Shama Challenge Cup in Peshawar in October, were won by Pakistan Army and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) respectively.
“We’ve stayed united in the face of adversity,” KRL manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn on Monday. “Despite the loss of key players, we’ve been amongst the best teams of the country through our unity and hard work.”
One of the keys to KRL’s resurgence was the return of Adil from Kyrgyz side Dordoi Bishkek while they have also signed former Wapda defender Mohammad Ahmed.
Ayaz, though, isn’t bothered by his former star players including Kaleem, Saddam and midfielder Mahmood Khan — all key players during KRL’s PPFL dominance — having jumped ship for K-Electric.
“We might not have the star names but we have the team spirit and that’s what really matters,” he added.
Kaleem joined K-Electric on a short-term deal from United Soccer League (USL) side Tulsa Roughnecks while Saddam joined them via Dordoi and Bahrain’s Isa FC.
But being the strongest side on paper isn’t putting K-Electric’s player-coach Mohammad Essa under pressure.
“With Kaleem, he have a complete team and we’re fully prepared to take on the challenge,” Essa told Dawn on Monday. “We can live with the favourites’ tag and it’s not a burden for us.”
Lutfi also believes the tournament is K-Electric’s to lose. “In terms of the players, they remain the team to beat,” he said.
But he’s looking forward to beating his former side KRL in what would be an emotional reunion for him on Sunday.
“A victory against them would be a real morale booster for us,” he said of his second-division side. “For me personally, it will be a match that brings back a lot of memories.”
The tournament starts on Tuesday with a Group ‘A’ match between Karachi United and Pakistan Steel which will be followed by a Group ‘D’ clash between National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) and Karachi Port Trust (KPT).
The 12 participating teams have been drawn into four groups of three with the top two progressing to the quarter-finals.
Group ‘A’: Wapda, Pakistan Steel, Karachi United.
Group ‘B’: Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), Pakistan Navy.
Group ‘C’: K-Electric, Sui Northen Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL), Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).
Group ‘D’: National Bank of Pakistan (NBP), Karachi Port Trust (KPT), Pakistan Police.