Last season’s winners Air Force Club of Iraq qualified for the final of the AFC Cup once again by beating Syria’s Al-Wahda club on the away goals rule by clinching a dramatic last-minute winner in the second leg of the West Zonal final.
Air Force Club kept their date with destiny and now it remains to be seen whether Bengaluru FC can follow them in doing the same. BFC face 2015 runners-up Istiklol in the Inter-Zonal final and the first leg in Dushanbe, Tajikistan is crucial to the Blues’ hopes of progressing.
Chief Technical Officer of Bengaluru FC, Mandar Tamhane, had earlier asserted that an away goal was the target in the Central Asian nation. Coincidentally, BFC had overcome Malaysian club Johor Baru, Istiklol’s conquerors in the 2015 final, at the same stage last year.
The battle between the two previous runners-up promises to be an interesting one, with the two teams eyeing the bigger prize that they missed out on.
Bengaluru FC manager Albert Roca has mentioned that his side should forget for a while that they are a step away from a second consecutive AFC Cup final and focus on getting one half of the job done at the Hisor Central Stadium, in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, on Wednesday.
The Blues set up the clash with the runners-up of the 2015 edition of the tournament after staving off a fight from North Korean side 4.25 SC to emerge 3-0 winners on aggregate. “We know how close we are to a shot at the final but we’ve kept that out of our thoughts for the moment. Over the next two games, it’s only Istiklol that we are concerned about.”
However, the task at hand, won’t be an easy one given the Tajik’s side recent run of form, and Roca wants his team to be aware of the threat they pose, “It’s going to be tough to get a good result against a team that has played a final before, but we are motivated to give our best. They are more matured than us, given they have just finished the league as champions.”
For the record, FC Istiklol come into the game on the back of an undefeated AFC Cup campaign so far with six wins and two draws. Their unbeaten streak isn’t just limited to the continental stage, as they are also unbeaten in 24 competitive games in the 2017 season so far. Thirteen of their nineteen wins during this period have come in the Tajik League where they clinched the 2017 title in 16 games with five rounds left to play.
They will be without as many as three starters in midfielders David Mawutor, Amirbek Juraboev and Ukrainian defender Artem Baranovskyi, all of whom miss the game with suspensions. However Roca said his side wouldn’t be making much of it given the depth in quality the hosts possesses. “They have players who can change the direction of a game in minutes and the key for us would be stay focused through the 90 minutes without taking the tie for granted.”
The Spaniard has a complete squad to choose from and while he rolled out an unchanged starting eleven over two legs against 4.25 SC, Roca could mull a few changes against the Tajik side. The Bengaluru defence did well to keep two clean sheets against 4.25 SC but will have their task cut out against a free-scoring Istiklol side who made it to the zonal final after a 5-1 aggregate result over Philippines side Ceres Negros.
Both teams are defensively solid units and while Bengaluru have shipped in seven goals so far, their opponents have conceded only six.
Crucially, BFC custodian Gurpreet Singh kept back-to-back clean sheets against April 25 SC and it took Bengaluru’s clean sheet tally to five for the AFC Cup 2017, while the Crowns have kept three so far.
Istiklol have also scored double the goals that Bengaluru have, 20 to the Indian side’s 10 and creating 103 chances in eight matches so far, as opposed to 74 for the visitors. A large part of that is down to national team forward Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who is the club’s leading scorer in this year’s AFC Cup with seven goals.
The Tajik side, unbeaten at home having won four in four, have the more impressive stats when it comes to tackles, notching up 94 to BFC’s 60 and winning 489 duels to the Blues’ 275. Clearly, Istiklol are a very physical side who will look to finish the job at home. Bengaluru’s task is cut out but they have an ability to spring surprises even at the continental level, setting up the first leg nicely.
(With inputs from JSW Media and the AFC website)