Kuala Lumpur: The 11 AFC Cup finals that had preceded the 2015 edition had seen 10 all West Asia affairs and just one team from outside the region – Uzbekistan’s Nasaf in 2011 – compete in the showpiece event.
But 2015 proved a groundbreaking year for the competition as Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim and Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol were the two sides to advance to the final as Southeast Asia took on Central Asia for the right to be crowned continental champions.
Making their debut in the competition, Istiklol’s start was not a sign of things to come after a 3-1 home defeat to 2014 runners-up Arbil of Iraq in Group C.
They, however, responded by winning 2-1 at Turkmenistan’s Ahal before claiming a commendable 2-2 draw away at defending champions Qadsia SC of Kuwait.
Nuriddin Davronov and Manuchehr Dzhalilov then scored in a superb 2-0 home victory against the holders, which the Tajik side followed up with a scoreless draw in Arbil and then progressed to the knockout rounds as table-toppers following a 5-2 victory against Ahal.
Darul Ta'zim, meanwhile, were appearing in the AFC Cup for the first time since 2009 and got off to the perfect start in Group F by defeating India’s East Bengal 4-1 at home, before a stoppage-time goal from Asraruddin Omar secured a 1-0 win over near neighbours Balestier Khalsa of Singapore.
A 2-0 reversal in Hong Kong against Kitchee only temporarily slowed momentum as three successive wins, without conceding a goal, saw the Malaysian team comfortably into the last 16 as group winners.
A shootout and a rout
Next up for Istiklol were inaugural runners-up Al Wahda of Iraq in Dushanbe in a game that saw the visitors’ Raslan Al Kurdi open the scoring before putting through his own net as the tie ultimately ended 1-1 and went to penalties.
And it was the hosts who held their nerve by scoring all four of their spotkicks while Al Wahda missed two as Istiklol’s impressive run continued into the quarter-finals.
Darul Ta'zim had won five and lost just one of their six games on the continent to date and the Malaysian team next stormed through their Round of 16 clash with Myanmar’s Ayeyawady United.
Captain Safiq Rahim opened the scoring in the first minute and second-half doubles from Argentine duo Luciano Figueroa and Jorge Pereyra Diaz *(pictured above) *wrapped up a resounding 5-0 win.
Onwards and upwards
Istiklol had an easier time of things in the last eight as Dilshod Vasiev (pictured above) bagged a brace in a 4-0 home win against Malaysia’s Pahang to put one foot in the semi-finals ahead of the second leg.
Pahang put up a fight on home territory, going two up before the hour, but Khurshed Makhmudov’s goal with 30 minutes to play calmed any nerves as the Tajik side progressed 5-3 on aggregate following a 3-1 defeat.
Figueroa’s penalty put Darul Ta'zim a goal to the good at home to Hong Kong’s South China but Mahama Awal’s equaliser – the first Johor had conceded in five games – meant it was all to play for in the return fixture.
Safee Sali’s goal had the visitors 2-1 up at the half-hour stage before Figueroa was dismissed soon after, but Sali struck once more in first-half stoppage time as 10-man Darul Ta'zim held out for the 3-1 win to advance 4-2 on aggregate.
Both sides were then tasked with Kuwaiti opposition in the semi-finals and would lose their first legs in the Gulf nation.
But FIFA’s subsequent suspension of the Kuwait Football Association and its members from all football activities meant that Istiklol and Johor progressed to the final.
For the first time ever, Southeast Asia would be represented in the AFC Cup final, although Johor were handed the task of a daunting trip to Central Asia as Istiklol were named the hosts for the one-legged match.
Unbeaten at home since the opening game of the competition, Istiklol went into the match with 18,000 fans cheering them on at Pamir Stadium.
A couple of early chances for the hosts went astray and they were soon punished as another Argentine, Leandro Velazquez, volleyed home from 16 yards midway through the first half to give Johor the lead.
Istiklol pushed hard for the equaliser after the restart and Dhzalilov had a goal ruled out for offside but Johor held out to be crowned Malaysia’s inaugural continental champions following their hard-fought 1-0 win.
Photos: Lagardère Sports