KARACHI: Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) manager Ayaz Butt claimed his side are back on track towards regaining their former self.
For now, though, Ayaz can’t ease out the pain of losing the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) title to K-Electric in 2014 after three successive titles.
The PPFL wasn’t held last year due to the conflict engulfing the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), meaning Ayaz missed out on seeing how far his side had come from 2014 when they finished a dismal sixth, watching their arch-rivals K-Electric clinching their maiden title.
KRL did win the National Challenge Cup in April last year but it’s the PPFL title, which comes with a spot in Asian competition, which Ayaz is so eager for.
In the meantime, he’s taking solace from his side’s performance in the PFF Cup — a tournament organised by the court-appointed PFF administrator after the country’s football governing body split into two factions in the lead-up to its presidential elections in June.
And he was delighted after they moved into the semi-finals of the tournament with a 3-1 win over Wapda at the Raiders Football Club Ground in Lahore on Thursday.
“We’re returning to our former self and we’ve found our winning mentality,” Ayaz told Dawn after their quarter-final clash.
“We’re a force to be reckoned with again and winning the tournament would reassert our credentials as the country’s top team,” he added, looking ahead to the semi-final against Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on Friday.
But K-Electric are not taking part in the tournament after their AFC Cup commitments meant they had to miss out on the first football event in the country in eight months.
K-Electric did their bit in weakening KRL last month, signing midfield due of Mahmood Khan and Dawood Khan, before their AFC Cup playoff against Bahrain’s Al Hidd which they lost 2-0 and missed out on becoming the first team from Pakistan to reach the group stages of Asia’s second-tier club competition.
Mahmood and Dawood were in 2013 part of the KRL team that disintegrated after they reached the final of the AFC President’s Cup — which was then the continent’s third-tier event.
Striker Kaleemullah, winger Mohammad Adil and midfielder Saddam Hussain left for Kyrgyz giants Dordoi while striker Saadullah and midfielder Bilawal-ur-Rehman joined second-division Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC).
But Ayaz believes the key for KRL has been the return of Adil who is waiting on a move to Maltese side Pembroke Athleta.
“With Adil on the pitch, other teams are wary of us as he can create things out of nowhere and can play all across the midfield,” Ayaz said.
And he hopes he will have the similar impact made by Saddam — who has since joined K-Electric — when he came for KRL during the Challenge Cup last year while he was waiting for a move to Bahrain’s Isa Town FC.
“We’ve brought in players who are now gelling well,” Ayaz said. “But Adil’s return has been the key for us as he can guide the youngsters on how to be match-winners.”
KRL have recently signed wingers Danish and Adnan Saeed from SSGC and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) respectively while midfielders Abdul Rafay and Mohammad Hanif have also come in.
And it was Hanif who opened the scoring in the 21st minute against Wapda when he turned in a rebound after Wapda goalkeeper Abdul Aziz had parried a shot by Zia-us-Salam.
Adil netted the second for KRL seven minutes into the second-half when he also finished a rebound after seeing his initial shot saved.
Wapda’s veteran striker Arif Mehmood struck an unstoppable free-kick in the 82nd but KRL finished them off a minute from time when Mohammad Shahid caught Aziz off the line with a spectacular lob from 25 yards.
PFF Cup 2016 Media Coordinator Riaz Ahmed adds:
Both PFF Cup 2016 semi-finals will be played on 20 February at Punjab Stadium, Lahore with schedule as follows:
KRL vs PAF (1100 hrs)
NBP vs Army (1400 hrs)