KARACHI: When Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) lifted the National Challenge Cup back in April 2015, neither them nor their rivals would’ve envisaged that their title defence would come after a gap of three years.

A lot has happened in Pakistan football since — more off-the-pitch than on it — and it continues to be in a state of flux with the Supreme Court having earlier this week ordered fresh elections of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) but with the Challenge Cup kicking off from Saturday, some of the focus is expected to shift on the game.

The SC has ordered elections in two phases: first of the Punjab Football Association (PFA) — the polls of which in April 2015 saw the PFF break into two factions and ensuring a rift that has only deepened over the last three years — and then the presidential election.

With the PFA election due by the end of this month, intense campaigning continues in Punjab, but all eyes are on the ball here.

“Of course it is our title defence,” KRL manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn on Friday following the draw ceremony of the tournament which hasn’t been held since their victory with the PFF mired in crisis and controversy, and also being banned by FIFA, during that time.

“And we definitely want to make it a successful one.”

A lot has changed at KRL since that triumph with most of those players having since left the side. Only last month they saw star striker Murtuza Hussain and Pakistan international goalkeeper Saqib Hanif leave for their rivals K-Electric and Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC).

Yet Ayaz is upbeat that his side will still be the team to beat. “We’ve seen so many players go, yet we’ve always been on top,” he remarked. “Players might change but KRL will always be KRL.”

Being on top is what drives Ayaz. He hopes with the resumption of football in the country, as successful title defence here will leave his side well-placed to win the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) which is set to kick-off after the Cup.

“We want this to set the platform really because we want the team in-form for the league,” he said.

K-Electric were the team that ended KRL’s three-year stranglehold on the PPFL title back in 2015. With Murtuza leading the line, this will be the first tournament they take part in since being ousted from the inaugural National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup by the KRL in January last year.

“We’ve prepared really well and with Murtuza coming to the side we’ve strengthened our frontline,” K-Electric playmaker Mohammad Riaz told Dawn on Friday. “Most of all what’s important is that football is returning and we will get to play some competitive matches.”

NBP, ASM TO CLASH IN OPENER

NBP, meanwhile, will clash with Ashraf Sugar Mills (ASM) in the tournament opener at the All Brothers Football Stadium. The 24 competing teams have been drawn in eight groups of three with the winners of each section advancing to the quarter-finals.

The matches will be held in two venues with the KPT Stadium being the other one. Teams in Groups ‘A’ to ‘D’ will play their matches at the All Brothers Stadium while matches in Groups ‘E’ to ‘H’ are to be played at the KPT Stadium.

The tournament also features for the first time Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) — a team of players solely from Balochistan.

Group ‘F’ meanwhile is the toughest on paper with Wapda, SSGC and Karachi United in it.

“It’s the group of death really,” SSGC coach Tariq Lutfi told Dawn on Friday. “We need to win the first game against Wapda to really have a chance of going through to the quarters.

Despite signing Saqib, Lutfi will not be able to field him since his latest acquisition is playing in Maldives at the moment. Lutfi will also have to make do without midfield dynamo and captain Saddam Hussain who is currently playing in Northern Cyprus.

“It’s unfortunate that we would be without our two best players but I trust the players I have to deliver the goods,” Lutfi added.

Groups:

Group ‘A’: National Bank of Pakistan, Ashraf Sugar Mills, Falcon FC.

Group ‘B’: Pakistan International Airlines, Pakistan Navy, Hazara FC.

Group ‘C’: Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Police, State Life.

Group ‘D’: Khan Research Laboratories, Sindh Government Press, Civil Aviation Authority.

Group ‘E’: Karachi Port Trust, Pakistan Public Works Department, Pakistan Petroleum Limited.

Group ‘F’: Wapda, Sui Southern Gas Limited, Karachi United.

Group ‘G’: Pakistan Army, Gwadar Port Authority, Pakistan Ordinance Factories.

Group ‘H’: K-Electric, Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, Asia Ghee Mills.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2018

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