by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: Murtaza Hussain had vowed to do his talking on the pitch. And he did exactly that.
The Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) striker stole the limelight from Kaleemullah at the KPT Stadium with a brilliant solo goal in extra-time, adding to his earlier effort, to inspire his side to a thrilling 4-3 victory over K-Electric in the NBP President’s Cup semi-final here on Thursday.
“I showed him who the boss is,” an ecstatic Murtaza told Dawn, referring to the Pakistan international marksman.
For KE’s Kaleem, the country’s biggest football star, the match ended in disgrace.
Sent off for elbowing his former KRL team-mate Shahid Gujjar in the dying minutes of regulation time, his ouster from the pitch led to Yasir Afridi grabbing a last-gasp leveller which took the match into extra-time.
And it was in the last minute of the extra period when Murtaza struck.
Stealing the ball just past the centre circle, Murtaza took all three KE defenders for a ride in a sensational run which culminated in a low finish which gave goalkeeper Ghulam Nabi no chance.
“Once I beat the first one, the momentum was with me,” Murtaza said. “That momentum took me past the other two and then it was just the goalkeeper to beat and thankfully I had an assured finish.”
Such was his run that by the time Murtaza turned back in celebration, the three defenders were still on the floor.
KE had been floored.
There was no way back now and the man they’ve just signed to inspire them in moments like these was watching on helplessly from the sidelines, cursing referee Dilawar Khan.
“It wasn’t a red card,” Kaleem protested to the match commissioner after being shown a straight red. “Gujjar was all over me and was tackling me from behind.”
Gujjar’s broken teeth told a different story.
There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears for KRL in this victory. More than Murtaza showing the man he replaced as KRL frontman who’s boss, this was about showing KE who’s Pakistan’s top team.
“We really wanted to win this,” KRL captain Zia-us-Salam told Dawn after the match. “We wanted to show KE that we’re still the country’s best team. And I think we’ve been very successful in doing that.”
KRL and KE have enjoyed a fierce rivalry over the last five years, with the former twice winning the National Challenge Cup at the expense of the latter.
And adding spice to this match was Kaleem facing his former team.
“We had to show him that with or without him, we’re still best,” KRL winger Mohammad Adil told Dawn. “This team has a fantastic team spirit and a never say die attitude … that’s what took us through today.”
Kaleem won four Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) titles in his five seasons with KRL before leaving them for Kyrgyz giants FC Dordoi in 2014.
He then went on to feature for United Soccer League (USL) sides Sacramento Republic and Tulsa Roughnecks before joining KE on a short-term contract last month.
In their first season without Kaleem, KRL relinquished the PPFL title 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.
Since then, KRL have been desperately waiting to reclaim the title of being the country’s top dogs. And that opportunity came on Thursday.
But they did it the hard way in a nerve-wracking game that swung back and forth.
KRL had three good chances in the opening quarter of an hour.
Midfielder Umair Ali hit the cross bar with a deft kick from the edge of the box before Murtaza’s backheel from inside the box went narrowly wide and winger Mohammad Imran volleyed straight at Nabi after good work by Murtaza.
Their profligacy was swiftly punished as KE took the lead in the 19th minute.
Mahmood Khan and Mohammad Riaz exchanged some quick passes on the edge of the box to open up space to set Mohammad Rasool free who stabbed home clinically.
KE were now on top but they gifted KRL an equaliser on the half hour mark when Nabi mistimed his clearance of Adil’s cross from the left and put it in the path of Murtaza who rushed in at the far post to head it in.
Murtaza’s endless running was causing KE problems at the back and KRL’s second on the stroke of half-time came thanks to his tenacity.
Running through the KE defence, he slid a pass to Imran who finished with aplomb.
KE, though, came back strongly in the second half and levelled matters three minutes in when a corner caused mayhem in the KRL box and Riaz was on hand to finish it off.
And 15 minutes from time, he got the goal which seemed to be the winner.
On a hopeful punt, Riaz took advantage of confusion between goalkeeper Saqib Hanif and Mohammad Ahmed and dinked the ball on the bounce to put his team on the cusp of a final against either Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) or Wapda, who play on Friday.
“I thought I’d won the game with my second goal,” Riaz told Dawn. “It was a tough match and unfortunately we couldn’t hold on.”
As KRL chased the equaliser, they were handed a reprieve as red mist descended on Kaleem who lashed out at Gujjar, who was closely marking him near the touchline, and was swiftly handed his marching orders.
“It changed the complexion of the game really,” KE coach Akber Ali told Dawn. “It gave KRL the impetus to go against us. Had Kaleem been there, they [KRL] probably wouldn’t have got the leveller,”
With KRL having made all their substitutions, Gujjar carried on playing despite blood pouring from his mouth.
But he soon forgot about his pain, joining his team-mates in celebration after Yasir’s dramatic injury-time goal.
Imran found Murtaza on the edge of the box and although Nabi stopped his snapshot, Yasir rushed into the box to slot in the rebound and send KRL into delirium.
“We sent him [Yasir] on because of his experience,” KRL manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn. “And he delivered for us at the most crucial of times.”
Yasir, though, was also shown a straight red in the second period of extra-time for a foul on KE defender Farooq.
With both teams now reduced to 10 men, it was anyone’s game to win.
And with the match heading to a shootout, Murtaza intervened to put KRL into the final. He and KRL delivered the message they wanted to deliver.