Air Force Club chasing history in 2018
Kuala Lumpur: Iraq's Air Force Club will have no need for motivation when they begin their AFC Cup title defence in 2018. Having won the title in the last two seasons, the Falcons will be charged up as they go in search of a historic third successive title.
Since the inception of the tournament in 2004, no club has ever won three AFC Cup titles on the trot. Jordan's Al Faisaly came close, but lost to rivals Shabab Al Ordon in the 2007 final after having won the previous two editions.
Air Force Club could be looking at a monumental 2018 if they manage to write their name in the history books. The Baghdad-based side, who are also the reigning Iraqi champions, will not be lacking in belief after they successfully defended their continental title this year following a challenging campaign.
Despite finishing as unbeaten toppers of Group B, Air Force's road to the 2017 AFC Cup final was far from straightforward. Going into the final matchday in the group stage, Air Force found themselves in danger of being eliminated in the event of a defeat to Bahrain's Al Hidd.
Fortunately for them, Amjed Radhi stepped up in the 71st minute to score the lone goal and ensure that Air Force reached the West Asia Zonal semi-finals.
Next up for Air Force was a two-legged clash with fierce city rivals Al Zawraa. The tie was spiced up by the fact that the first leg would be held in Arbil, marking the first continental match in Iraq after an absence of four years.
More than 11,000 fans witnessed a 1-1 draw play out in Arbil before Air Force managed to edge past Al Zawraa in the second leg in Doha, with Emad Mohsin's 50th minute strike making the difference.
The Zonal final pitted Air Force with familiar opponents Al Wahda of Syria. The two teams had met in the group stage in 2016 and 2017. Al Wahda went on to register a 2-1 win in the first leg, handing Air Force their first defeat in the competition since March 16, 2016, which incidentally was also against the same opposition.
The return leg at the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium was a hard-fought affair. Air Force could have lost further ground when Al Wahda were awarded a penalty early on but Fahad Talib made a brilliant save to keep out Mohammad Al Ghabbash.
Despite the setback, Al Wahda still had the aggregate lead and going into the dying minutes of the game, they were on track to reach their first AFC Cup final since the inaugural edition in 2004.
However, Air Force would have the last laugh after Radhi rose highest in the 94th minute to head in Humam Tareq's cross, giving his side a 1-0 win and sending them through to a second successive final.
The defending champions now had one final obstacle; 2015 runners-up Istiklol FC. The Tajiks were drawn as the home side for the final, so Air Force made the trip to Hisor looking to win the title once again.
Although captain Hammadi Ahmed missed a penalty, Air Force kept their composure and managed to break the deadlock through Mohsin, whose 68th minute fine strike proved to be the difference as the Iraqis held on to defend their title.
While the AFC Cup win provided another piece of silverware to add to the Iraqi league title they won in the summer, Air Force haven't had a comfortable start to the 2017-18 season.
The Falcons could only garner a single point from their first three games in the new season and also lost on penalties to Al Zawraa in a derby clash in the Iraqi Super Cup.
Following another defeat to Al Zawraa in the league, Air Force coach Hussam Al Sayed handed in his resignation. Former Iraq national team coach Radhi Shnaishel has been brought in as his replacement; becoming the team's third coach in 2017.
Hussam Al Sayed has left the club less than a month after winning the AFC Cup.
While there has been an improvement in the team's fortunes since Shnaishel's arrival, he will undoubtedly be hoping for better things to come when the new AFC Cup campaign kicks off in February.
Air Force have been drawn in Group A, alongside debutants Al Malkiya of Bahrain, Al Jazeera of Jordan and the winners of the play-off between Oman's Al Suwaiq and Palestine's Hilal Al Quds.
In less than two months, Air Force will launch their pursuit of a historic third consecutive title with a home game against Al Jazeera. The club's passionate fans will hope that their domestic form turns around by then.