Kuala Lumpur: A year of hard work and dedication came to a close with clubs, players and coaches reaping the rewards in the last quarter of 2017. The-AFC.com reviews the action from the final three months in the fourth part of this series.
Four Asian nations had already booked their tickets to Russia 2018, but there was half a spot to be contested between Syria and Australia, with the winners facing the fourth-placed CONCACAF side for a place in the FIFA World Cup.
Syria had stunned the continent to finish third in their group, ahead of heavyweights like China PR and Qatar, while Australia were edged by Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The two sides faced off in Malaysia for the first leg, and the Socceroos took the lead through Robbie Kruse late in the first half, but Omar Al Somah equalised for the Qasioun Eagles from the penalty spot five minutes before the end of the match.
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Five days later, Australia welcomed the Syrians to Sydney, and Omar Al Somah was on target again to put the visitors in front inside the first 10 minutes.
Socceroos skipper Tim Cahill led by example with two headed goals to send his country into the Inter-Confederation Play-off against Honduras the following month.
At the club level, we found out the two AFC Champions League finalists. In the West, Al Hilal built on a 4-0 first leg triumph to come away from Muscat with a 2-2 draw against Persepolis. Omar Khribin starred for the Saudis with five goals across the two legs.
In East Asia, Rafael Silva’s goal was the difference in the second leg as Urawa Red Diamonds edged Shanghai SIPG 2-1 on aggregate to set up a grand finale against Al Hilal.
In women’s football, Japan asserted their dominance on the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship with a fifth title after defeating DPR Korea in the final.
DPR Korea were consigned to a fourth consecutive runner up finish. The two finalists were joined by China PR in qualifying to the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
The penultimate month of the year was arguably the busiest of the Asian football calendar.
Australia defeated Honduras 3-1 on aggregate to ensure that Asia is represented by five nations in the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever.
The AFC Champions League title went to Urawa Red Diamonds with a 2-1 aggregate win over Al Hilal to lift their second Asian title a full decade on from their maiden success.
Iraq’s Air Force Club made history by retaining their AFC Cup title, beating Tajikistan’s Istiklol 1-0 courtesy of an Emad Mohsin goal.
November was also a time for individual prizes. Syria’s Omar Khribin and Australia’s Samantha Kerr were named the AFC Player of the Year and the AFC Women’s Player of the Year respectively, as Urawa’s Takafumi Hori won the AFC Coach of the Year award and his countrywoman Asako Takakura won the equivalent award in the women’s category.
Asian clubs wrapped the year in style when the UAE hosted the FIFA Club World Cup. Host representatives Al Jazira kicked-off the competition in style, despatching New Zealand’s Auckland City to set up an all-Asian quarter-final against AFC Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds.
Ali Mabkhout was on target as the Abu Dhabi side became the first Emirati team to reach the competition’s semi-final. A 1-0 win over Urawa set up a once-in-a-lifetime clash for Al Jazira against European champions Real Madrid.
It was a night to remember at Zayed Sports City Stadium as the goalkeeper Ali Khaseif put a world class performance to ward off an avalanche of Real Madrid attacks before Romarinho fired Al Jazira in front at the start of the second period.
Khaseif was stretched off with an injury, and the Madrid pressure ultimately proved too match for the young Al Jazira side to handle as Zinedine Zidane’s men laboured to a 2-1 win with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale settling the fixture for the Spaniards.
Al Jazira won the hearts of football fans, even as they were consigned to a 1-4 defeat by Keisuke Honda’s Pachuca in the third-place play-off to end their campaign at fourth. Meanwhile, Urawa beat Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca to finish fifth.
It was a year to remember, but eyes now turn to a 2018 that promises a more thrilling action, starting with the AFC U23 Championship in China in January.
Photos: FIFA.com, Lagardère Sports