AFC Cup: 5 Things To Look Out for
Kuala Lumpur: A busy week of AFC Cup action awaits with knockout round matches in the ASEAN and West Zones and the conclusion of the group stage in the Central, South and East Zones.
Ahead of a week from which will see the number of teams in the competition whittled down to just seven, the-AFC.com highlights five things to look out for across the continent.
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1. Persija’s 12th man
The AFC Cup has generated fever pitch in Indonesia, with Persija Jakarta’s run to the knockout rounds drawing in record numbers. The side’s last home game at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, against Johor Darul Ta’zim in April, was witnessed by more than 60,000 spectators – an all-time record for the competition.
Three home wins from three is proof of the positive effect such support has on Persija, particularly considering they have recorded just one win from four away games and last week went down 3-2 to Singapore’s Home United in the first leg of the ASEAN Zonal semi-final.
On Tuesday, the two sides meet again for the second leg as the visitors look to progress to the ASEAN Zonal final for the second successive year. Song Ui-young, who has scored in six of Home United’s seven games and in every away match, will be their main goal threat.
In Marko Simic, meanwhile, Persija possess a forward who has scored seven goals in three home games, including four in his last match at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium against Johor Darul Ta'zim. They also boast a support that is hard to rival anywhere on the continent.
2. Qualification out of Bengaluru’s hands
When Ali Ashfaq capitalised on a defensive mistake by JSW Bengaluru just after the interval to net New Radiant’s second goal in a 2-0 victory over the Indian side on Matchday Four, the significance of the strike may have been lost on some.
The game finished 2-0 and, after Bengaluru had won the reverse meeting 1-0 in India two weeks earlier, meant that the Maldivian side now had a better head-to-head record. Going into their final Group E games, they sit on the same points and Ashfaq’s goal may prove the difference.
On Wednesday, New Radiant travel to India to face bottom side Aizawl FC and Bengaluru are in Bangladesh to take on Abahani Limited Dhaka. Should the Maldivian side equal the Indian team’s result, they will advance to the knockout rounds for the first time since 2013.
Bengaluru have been a remarkable success story since debuting in the AFC Cup in 2015, when they reached the last 16. A year later they finished as runners-up before advancing to the Inter-Zone final in 2017. Many had expected a strong run this time, too, but they now need a helping hand from a domestic rival.
3. Former champions target West Zonal final
After claiming back-to-back titles in the last two years, Iraq’s Air Force Club have been the dominant force in the AFC Cup’s recent history and a 3-1 win over Al Ahed in the first leg of the West Zonal semi-final means they remain on course to win a third successive crown.
One up as the game approached the 90-minute mark, Air Force Club added two more goals to give them a comfortable lead. A 98th-minute strike from Al Ahed does give them hope ahead of the second leg in Beirut, although to advance they would have to become only the second side to ever beat Air Force Club in the competition.
In contrast to the holders, Al Faisaly were the dominant force in the early years of the competition. The Jordanian side also won successive titles, in 2005 and 2006, before finishing as runners-up in 2007.
The Jordanian side drew 1-1 with domestic rivals Al Jazeera in their first leg and the tie remains firmly in the balance ahead of Monday’s second leg. But if Air Force Club avoid defeat and Al Faisaly win or end goalless, the teams with four titles between them will face off in September.
4. An Il-bom’s scoring run
DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC have had few problems in progressing from Group I, with the Pyongyang side having won all five of their games, scoring 18 goals in the process and conceding just one ahead of their final group game with Chinese Taipei’s Hang Yuen FC on Wednesday.
Equally impressive has been the goalscoring form of their captain An Il-bom, who has found the back of the net in all five games, with the forward’s run beginning with an 84th-minute winner in a 1-0 victory over domestic rivals Hwaepul SC in their first game of the campaign.
An went on to net braces in the win over Hang Yuen and twice against Benfica Macau, before the skipper opened the scoring in the return meeting with Hwaepul in a 2-0 win that confirmed qualification to the knockout rounds.
The Pyongyang side will round off their group stage at home to Hang Yuen on Wednesday with the pressure completely off, but An will have his own personal goal as he aims to maintain a perfect record of scoring in every game so far ahead of the Inter-Zone semi-finals in August.
5. Could late goals come back to haunt Istiklol?
Back on Matchday Two in Group D, FC Istiklol were two goals up against Altyn Asyr as the game approached stoppage time, but late goals from Myrat Yagsyyev and Altymyrat Annadurdyyev saw the Turkmen hosts salvage a 2-2 draw.
Two-time runners-up Istiklol went on to win their next three games and the draw in Turkmenistan remains the only time the Tajik team has dropped points. Had they won that game, qualification would have been confirmed by now.
But Altyn Asyr go into Wednesday’s match in Hisor just two points behind their opponents and knowing that a win would see them leapfrog Istiklol and advance to the AFC Cup knockout rounds for the first time in their history.
They were in a similar position last year and conceded in stoppage time as Istiklol won 1-0 and eventually reached the final. But with the resilience shown earlier in the campaign to claim a late draw, Altyn Asyr may feel they have what it takes to overcome their Tajik hosts this time.
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