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2021 AFC Cup: The return of FC Nasaf

Kuala Lumpur: For the first time in a decade, 2011 AFC Cup winners FC Nasaf of Uzbekistan will return to the continental competition on Friday for a "title defence" 10 years in the making.

When the 2021 AFC Cup Group Stage draw was made on January 27, one of the biggest names among the contenders was a side that had not been seen in the tournament for many years, the 2011 champions FC Nasaf.

After a dominant campaign that saw them go all the way, the Central Asians have never had the opportunity to defend their crown, competing in the AFC Champions League in subsequent seasons. celebrates FC Nasaf's return following the decade-long absence by reviewing the side's highs and lows in the intervening years.

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2011: AFC Cup History-makers

While Nasaf's first experience on the continental club stage actually came in an impressive run to the semi-finals of the 2001-02 Asian Club Championship, their extended run in AFC tournaments that would last from 2010 to 2018 began with the 2010 AFC Cup and a Round of 16 elimination to Syria's Al Karamah.

Just a year later, the Uzbek side were back and this time they meant business. A perfect record from Group A saw six wins from six with 30 goals scored and just four conceded as Nasaf chalked up big wins over India's Dempo (9-0) and Yemeni club Al Tilal (7-1) with the side proving a particularly dominant force on home turf.

Things got decidedly closer, however, in the knockout stage as two-time champions Al Faisaly of Jordan were edged 2-1 in the Round of 16, before penalties were needed to see off Thailand's Chonburi. The semi-final against Jordanian club Al Wehdat proved another tight affair with Ivan Boskovic's goal after the hour enough to see Nasaf into the final via a 2-1 aggregate scoreline.

The final itself was hosted in Karshi, Nasaf's hometown, at their Karshi Central Stadium in front of a capacity crowd. Facing off with 2009 winners Kuwait SC, the teams shared a goalless first half before Nasaf striker Ilkhom Shomurodov – uncle of current Uzbekistan star Eldor – opened the scoring just after the hour mark, steering home from five yards.

Even better was to come just three minutes later, though, as Ukraine-born Latvian Andrejs Pereplotkins flicked home delightfully to double the lead. Incredibly, the complexion of the tie was changed in yet another three minutes as Kuwait SC's Ivorian striker Boris Kabi cut the deficit.

However, that would prove to be the last twist in the final's tale as the hosts hung on to their narrow advantage to take the title and cue celebrations in the stands and on the pitch.

2012-2018: The AFC Champions League Years

As well as their continental glory, Nasaf enjoyed a successful domestic campaign and qualified for their AFC Champions League debut courtesy of their runners-up finish in the 2011 Uzbek League.

However, their dominance in the AFC Cup did not swiftly translate to the step up required for Asia's premier club competition as the Karshi side finished bottom of Group A on one point and, despite a creditable draw away at Tehran giants Esteghlal, failed to win a game. Things would improve, however, on their return at the 2015 edition.

In spite of their failure to reach either the 2013 or 2014 editions, Nasaf returned to the AFC Champions League in 2015 and they needed just one game to get their maiden win, defeating Tractor Sazi 2-1 in Karshi on Matchday One.

This was followed by a defeat away at Al Ahli Saudi FC, but did feature a spectacular free-kick from their star playmaker Artur Gevorkyan, the 2011 AFC Cup MVP.

The Turkmen talent also netted a brace in an impressive win away at Tractor Sazi but, ultimately, Nasaf were unable to progress to the Round of 16, edged out by the UAE's Al Ahli on head-to-head record.

Nasaf returned the very next year but, unfortunately, their campaign followed their debut appearance as they again finished bottom of the group, although they were able to get a win over now familiar opponents Al Ahli Saudi.

The Karshi club's most recent appearance in the AFC Champions League came in 2018, and it was also their best points haul as they totalled an impressive 10 points from a tough group that included heavyweights Persepolis FC and Al Sadd SC.

However, despite their creditable tally, it was only good enough for a third-place finish and elimination at the first phase once more.

2019-2021: The Team Now

Ever since 2009, with the exception of 2012, Nasaf have enjoyed a status as one of the three best clubs in their nation, finishing runners-up in 2011 and 2017, until, that is, 2018 when they finished a shocking seventh in the league.

And that poor result was repeated in 2019 when they, again, could not better seventh spot. However, last year saw the Karshi side return to their former prominence as they secured second place, losing just three times and going unbeaten at home.

With the prolific Uzbekistan striker Bobur Abdikholikov up front and the exciting Serbian Marko Stanojevic in midfield, Ruzikul Berdiev's team were 'best of the rest' in a season where a dominant Pakhtakor cruised to the championship.

Second place was, however, enough to qualify as a stand-by team for the 2021 AFC Cup and, thanks to AGMK FC's progression through the play-offs into the 2021 AFC Champions League Group Stage, ultimately it proved to be the ticket to return to the AFC Cup.

Of the players that coach Berdiev will have at his disposal in the 2021 AFC Cup, the biggest loss is Abdikholikov, who moved to Rukh Lviv in the Ukrainian Premier League.

Stanojevic remains, however, and is the club's leading scorer this season, while young wingers Khusayin Norchaev, 19, and Akmal Mozgovoy, 22, have also been among the goals.

With no Uzbekistan side featuring in the AFC Cup since 2012, Asian football observers await with interest their return to the competition and the defence of a title they never lost.

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