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November: What A Month It Was!

Kuala Lumpur: The last four weeks have wrapped up a fantastic month in Asian club and national team football with joy and despair witnessed across the continent as the season climaxed in thrilling style.

With the AFC Champions League, the AFC Cup and international football to take a break until early 2017, join as we look back on a November that will live long in the memory.

Air Force Club retain the AFC Cup

Goals galore helped Iraq’s Air Force Club win the AFC Cup on their debut appearance in 2016, but the Baghdad side progressed to this year’s final on the back of a string of solid defensive displays.

Hussam Al Saed’s team were tasked with a tricky away date in Tajikistan in the one-legged main event as unbeaten FC Istiklol, who had won five on the bounce at home, were aiming to make up for the heartache of losing the 2015 final.

A tense encounter ensued as last year’s 16-goal top scorer and Air Force Club captain Hammadi Ahmed saw his penalty saved by goalkeeper Nicola Stosic shortly after the restart.

But Emad Mohsin would prove the hero as the striker emphatically fired home midway through the second half for the only goal of the game as the Iraqis ensured more despair for the fans inside Hisor Central Stadium to become two-time continental champions.

Socceroos clinch record fifth Asian spot at FIFA World Cup

Having narrowly seen off Syria in the previous round, Australia’s final mission on the Road to Russia was to overcome Honduras in the Intercontinental Play-off, and 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula ensured Ange Postecoglou’s side returned home with a slight advantage ahead of the second leg in Sydney.

A scoreless opening half in which Australia controlled possession but created few chances looked likely to set up a tense second 45 minutes, but Mile Jedinak’s deflected free-kick on 54 minutes gave the hosts a deserved lead.

Any nerves inside Stadium Australia were then diminished as Jedinak’s 72nd-minute penalty all but secured the Socceroos’ place at a fourth successive World Cup, before the midfielder completed a first hat-trick for his country following another penalty with five minutes remaining.

The Central Americans snatched a late consolation but the 77,000 spectators were already in celebratory mode as, for the first time ever, it was confirmed that Asia will have five representatives at the world’s greatest footballing spectacle. 

Urawa Red Diamonds win second AFC Champions League

The climax of the 2017 AFC Champions League pitted 2007 winners Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, with the J.League side aiming to claim their second continental title and the Riyadh giants seeking to win the tournament for the first time in its present format.

Rafael Silva gave Takafumi Hori’s side the perfect start early in the first leg at King Fahd International Stadium but, after twice being denied by the superb Shusaku Nishikawa in the Urawa goal, Omar Khribin levelled the scores eight minutes before the interval. But the visitors survived an Al Hilal onslaught to return home with a draw.

Saitama Stadium was at its vibrant best a week later in Japan when Urawa were looking to maintain a perfect home record and Al Hilal were attempting to remain unbeaten throughout the tournament in their respective quests for continental glory as a goalless first half ensued.

Then, with just over 10 minutes remaining, Salem Al Dawsari was dismissed for a second bookable offence, before Brazilian Silva powered into the roof of the net in the 88th minute to win the game and the competition for the hosts and spark jubilant scenes around the venue as captain Yuke Abe hoisted the AFC Champions League trophy into the Saitama sky.

Khribin and Kerr pick up top awards

Syria's Omar Khribin was named the AFC Player of the Year and Australia's Samantha Kerr won the AFC Women's Player of the Year after the pair enjoyed stellar seasons for both club and country.

Al Hilal's Khribin beat 2016 winner Omar Abdulrahman of the United Arab Emirates and China's Wu Lei to claim the top men's gong after finishing the AFC Champions League as top scorer with 10 goals as the Saudi Arabian side came runners-up to Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds, while the striker also helped Syria progress to a FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Continental Play-off against Australia. 

Kerr, meanwhile, netted four times as Australia won the inaugural Tournament of Nations and produced a stunning campaign for club side Sky Blue FC as she scored the most goals ever in a single season of the United States' National Women's Soccer League and was named Most Valuable Player.

Elsewhere, Takafumi Hori picked up the AFC Coach of the Year after steering Urawa to a second AFC Champions League title and Asako Takakura claimed an historic fifth AFC Women's Coach of the Year after she became the first-ever female coach of Japan's national team.

Photos: Lagardère Sports & AFC