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Air Force Club beat Al Wehda on penalties to confirm AFC Champions League group stage spot

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Mekkah: Iraq’s Air Force Club beat Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda FC 3-2 on penalties after 120 minutes ended in a 1-1 draw at King Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium in the 2021 AFC Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

The three-time AFC Cup winners left it late to find the back of the net, cancelling Al Wehda’s first-half goal and taking the game to an extra 30 minutes where the two teams could not be separated.

With this win Air Force Club join UAE’s Sharjah FC, Islamic Republic of Iran’s Tractor and Pakhtakor FC of Uzbekistan in Group B of the 2021 AFC Champions League taking place in Sharjah.

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After a cagey start to the first half, it was Al Wehda who broke the deadlock halfway through the opening 45 minutes as Youssoufou Niakate (pictured below, right) found space inside the Air Force Club box and converted Sulaiman Hazazi’s throw in, beating the goalkeeper at his near post.

The Iraqis nearly equalised three minutes later as Karar Nabeel fed Mohammed Aboud at the edge of the box and the latter unleashed an effort that passed just wide off the Al Wehda goal.

Australian midfielder Dimitrios Petratos came close to adding Al Wehda’s second just before the halftime break as he curled a free-kick from 25 yards out over the wall but could not bring the ball down on time and it passed over the crossbar.

A poorly weighted back pass from defender Ahmed Ibrahim to his goalkeeper Fahad Taleb nearly allowed Hussein Al Essa to add Al Wehda’s second after the full-back applied the pressure on the goalkeeper whose kick bounced off Al Essa but went behind for a goal kick.

Although the hosts looked to run down the clock, they did have the better chances in the second half. Niakate had a chance to double his tally in the 65th minute as he rose highest to head Petratos’ cross but failed to direct his header goalward.

In turn, Air Force Club looked to send balls behind the opposition defence in an attempt to find the runs of substitute striker Ayman Hussein (pictured below, right). The Iraqi international was a constant menace for the Al Wehda defence, but was beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Abdullah Al Owaisher on one occasion and failed to control the overhead pass on another.

As Al Wehda looked headed to the group stage, Ibrahim Bayesh advanced to the byline down the right wing and drilled a low cross into the box for Hussein who controlled and rifled past Al Owaisher to force extra time.

With the momentum shifting in their favour, Air Force Club took the game to their opponents in extra time and Hussein tested Al Owaisher from outside the box and was first to pounce on the goalkeeper’s spilled save, but Al Wehda’s number showed great athleticism to get up and smother Hussein’s follow through.

Hussein continued to dominate in the attacking third and after supplying a ball to Bayesh down the right, he moved into space in the box and perfectly connected with the return cross from the right, but as his header looked destined for the top corner, Al Owaisher produced a fine reflex save to keep Al Wehda’s hopes alive and send the game into penalties.

Air Force Club head coach Ayoub Odisho played a gamble by bringing on substitute goalkeeper Mohammed Salih for Talib just before the penalty shootout and he was vindicated as the super sub helped his team emerge 3-2 winners to reach the group stage.

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