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Inter-Zone Semi-finals: A look back

Kuala Lumpur: There are just five days to go until the 2019 AFC Cup returns with the two-legged Inter-Zone semi-finals, and the sides now just four matches away from November’s final.

The games see Vietnam’s Hanoi FC up against Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr and Abahani Limited Dhaka of Bangladesh face DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC as the Zonal champions from the ASEAN, Central, South and East square off. 

With this Inter-Zone format only in its third year since the AFC Cup was remodelled, looks back at the four previous match-ups from this stage of the Continental competition.

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1. FC Istiklol 5-1 Ceres Negros (August/September 2017)

Runners-up in 2015, Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol had disappointed a year later but returned stronger in 2017, while Ceres Negros’ progress as the ASEAN Zonal champions highlighted a steady improvement in Filipino football.

But a trip to Dushanbe proved a difficult task for Ceres as an Akhtam Nazarov penalty and a Romish Jalilov strike put the hosts two up at the interval, before Manuchehr Dzhalilov rocketed home a third midway through the second half.

Istiklol's star striker Dzhalilov added a fourth two minutes from time as Ceres’ trip to Central Asia turned into a nightmare and the Filipino side were left with a mountain to climb back in Bacolod City.

Spanish defender Super gave them slight hope on 34 minutes at Pana-ad Park and Football Stadium three weeks later, but Russian forward Dmitri Barkov killed the game off in first-half stoppage time as the 1-1 draw saw Istiklol progress to to the Inter-Zone Final 5-1 on aggregate.

2. JSW Bengaluru 3-0 4.25 SC (August/September 2017)

The 2016 runners-up JSW Bengaluru were determined to make amends for their near miss and, after being crowned South Zone champions, were pitted against free-scoring East Zone champions and tournament debutants 4.25 SC of DPR Korea in the Inter-Zone semi-finals. 

Rain lashed down at Sree Kanteerava Stadium as captain Sunil Chhetri dinked home a cheeky penalty shortly after the half hour and Udanta Singh gave those who had braved the conditions even more to cheer by doubling the advantage five minutes after the restart.

With a tricky tie in Pyongyang to come, midfielder Lenny Rodrigues gave the Indian side further breathing space by rounding off a perfect evening for the hosts 13 minutes from time as Bengaluru put one foot in the Inter-Zone Final. 

While 4.25 put Bengaluru under considerable pressure throughout the return meeting, the Blues’ defence remained resolute as they held out for a scoreless draw to advance, before suffering an agonising 3-2 aggregate defeat to Istiklol in the Inter-Zone Final.

3. Home United 1-11 4.25 SC (August 2018)

Singapore’s Home United overcame Ceres to be crowned ASEAN Zonal champions in 2018, but what awaited them in the next round proved a bridge too far as 4.25 returned looking to make up for missed opportunities. 

While the result at Jalan Besar Stadium was not a catastrophe, second-half goals from Pak Myong-song and An Il-bom gave 4.25 a 2-0 win and left them strong favourites to progress to the next round.

But Home offered themselves hope when Song Ui-young opened the scoring at Kim Il-sung Stadium, only to go into half-time demoralised after Om Chol-song netted a hat-trick as the Pyongyang team had gone 4-1 up.

The hosts showed no sign of letting up after the interval, scoring a further five times, as An added two more to his tally and 4.25 moved on to the Inter-Zone Final following a stunning 11-1 aggregate win.

4. JSW Bengaluru 2-5 Altyn Asyr (August 2018)

A year after defeating 4.25 at the same stage, Bengaluru were left shell-shocked when Central Zonal champions Altyn Asyr visited Karnataka State as goals from recent acquisition Vahyt Orazsahedov and Altymyrat Annadurdyyev put the Turkmen side two up at the interval.

The home side were then dealt a killer blow as Orazsahedov added a third almost immediately after the restart, although defender Rahul Bheke pulled one back shortly after the hour to offer a glimmer of hope.

Australian Erik Paartalu then breathed life into the tie by heading home with two minutes on the clock and suddenly there was plenty to play for in the second leg a week later in Ashgabat, where Bengaluru would need to score at least twice.

With the game goalless at the break, it was Altyn Asyr who struck first on 50 minutes through Annadurdyevv before Orazsahedov added his third of the contest eight minutes later. A 2-0 victory ultimately saw Altyn Asyr become the first Turkmen side to appear in the AFC Cup Final, although after a fine campaign they suffered a 2-0 loss to holders Air Force Club of Iraq.

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