Road to the 2019 AFC Cup Final
Kuala Lumpur: A new AFC Cup champion will be crowned on Monday, when Lebanon's Al Ahed face off against DPR Korea's 4.25 SC in Kuala Lumpur. Neither nation has lifted the title as yet so, whoever is the victor, Continental history will be made.
After nine months of action, it all comes down to just one match. 4.25 SC, the East Asia Zonal and Inter-Zonal champions, from Pyongyang against the West Asia Zonal champions Al Ahed of Beirut.
Lebanon has previously had two sides Nejmeh (2005) and Safa (2008) reach the AFC Cup final but both were defeated, while DPR Korea have only had representatives in the AFC Cup since the 2017 edition.
Both clubs, therefore, are on the brink of writing a new chapter in their country's footballing legacy. We take a look back at how they made it this far.
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Group Stage: Return to the Knockout Rounds
Having reached the West Asia Zonal semi-finals last year, Al Ahed were determined to at least match that in their ninth appearance in the AFC Cup.
The Lebanese began their campaign in indifferent fashion with back-to-back goalless stalemates at home to Kuwait's Qadsia SC and away at Bahrain's Malkiya Club, but momentum began to pick up after an action-packed 4-2 win against Oman's Al Suwaiq courtesy of Mohamad Kdouh's hat-trick.
The return meeting with Al Suwaiq was a narrower 1-0 victory, again thanks to a strike from Kdouh, before another 1-0 win, this time away at Qadsia, set up a winner-take-all showdown against Malkiya.
At Beirut's Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, the Bahraini side took the lead on 14 minutes but goals from Ahmad Zreik and Khalil Khamis gave Al Ahed the come-from-behind win and saw them into the knockout stages as Group C winners.
Drawn in Group I with Chinese Taipei's Hang Yuan FC and Hong Kong pair Wofoo Tai Po and Kitchee SC, back-to-back East Asia Zonal winners 4.25 SC began their 2019 AFC Cup campaign in typically dominant fashion with a 3-0 win in Zhubei over Hang Yuan.
The DPR Korea side kept their momentum in the two subsequent ties with consecutive wins over the clubs from Hong Kong 2-0 at home to Kitchee and 3-1 away at Tai Po.
Even more impressive was the next two home ties in Pyongyang that saw them chalk up nine goals scored and zero conceded in 4-0 and 5-0 wins over Tai Po and Hang Yuan to ensure they retained their mantle as East Asia Zonal champions and Group I winners.
A surprise 1-0 defeat to Kitchee in Hong Kong did, though, see 4.25 SC sign off their Group I campaign on a disappointing note.
Knockout Rounds: Contrasting Journeys; Same Goal
Having been eliminated at the West Asia Zonal semi-finals in 2018 after a 5-3 aggregate defeat to eventual champions Air Force Club of Iraq, Al Ahed's return to the knockout stage proved a less sour experience.
Paired with Group A winners Al Wehdat, Al Ahed journeyed to a near-capacity King Abdullah II Stadium in Amman for the first leg and it was the Lebanese who left the Jordanian capital the happier after Kdouh netted the only goal with 11 minutes left on the clock.
A goalless second leg in Beirut ensured it was Al Ahed who slipped into the West Asia Zonal final by the narrowest margin. There they would face Jordanian opponents once more, Al Jazeera who had defeated Syria's Al Jaish in the other semi-final.
It was once more to be a closely fought match with just one goal across the two legs.
After neither side could make a breakthrough in the first leg in Amman, it was Tunisian striker Ahmed Akaichi who proved the difference-maker with a strike on the half hour to see Al Ahed through and into the AFC Cup final as West Asia Zonal champions.
While Al Ahed were edging past sides with defences largely on top, it was quite different on the other side of the Continent with goals galore.
4.25 SC's first hurdle in the knockout stage was South Asia Zonal champions Abahani Limited Dhaka of Bangladesh in the Inter-Zone semi-finals and it was pair of thrilling matches between the two sides.
After a goalless 30 minutes at Bangabandhu National Stadium, the first leg exploded into life with a flurry of seven goals in under an hour. Hosts Abahani edged it 4-3, but in the return meeting in Pyonygang it was 4.25 who came out on top with a 2-0 win for a 5-4 aggregate victory.
As a result, 4.25 SC returned to the Inter-Zone final for the second consecutive year. Having lost to Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr in 2018, Hanoi FC were the the challenge this year, a team that had already gone further than any other Vietnamese side before and one filled with a number players of the talented national side.
Just like in Dhaka, the first leg proved to be an exciting goal-packed affair as the two shared a four-goal thriller with Kim Yu-song's late leveller proving crucial as 4.25 SC took an away goals advantage pack to Pyongyang.
The equaliser in Hanoi proved to be the difference-marker.
Hanoi could not find a way through in the DPR Korea capital and 4.25 SC's unbeaten run of home matches in the AFC Cup stretched to 15 with the 0-0 scoreline enough to take them into the 2019 AFC Cup final and a meeting with Al Ahed.
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