AFC Cup: Magic Moments
Kuala Lumpur: While the 2020 AFC Cup remains on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve been looking back at some of the most memorable moments the competition has seen over the years.
This week, we return with three more as we turn the spotlight on an ASEAN champion, a double hat-trick hero and late, late drama in Tajikistan.
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JDT break new ground for ASEAN
Never before had a Southeast Asian team been to an AFC Cup final, with several semi-final appearances the best the region had managed since the inaugural tournament in 2004.
But Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim, whose ambitious new era launched in 2013 having previously entered the competition as Johor FC in 2009, bucked the trend in 2015 by making it all the way to the showpiece event.
Boasting a squad brimming with Malaysian internationals of the calibre of Safiq Rahim and Safee Sali, complimented by the arrivals of quality overseas players including Luciano Figueroa and Marcos Antonio, JDT breezed through the group stage with five wins from six.
Myanmar’s Ayeyawady United and South China of Hong Kong were both seen off in the knockout rounds before holders Qadsia SC’s disqualification after the first leg of the semi-finals saw the southern Malaysian team into the final.
The one-legged final pitted Mario Gomez’s men against debutants FC Istiklol of Tajikistan, meaning that, for only the second time ever, the trophy would be won by a non-West Asian club.
Played in front of a near-capacity crowd in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, JDT rose to the occasion and, after clearing an early Istiklol effort off the line, Argentine Leandro Velazquez’s low drive went through a cluster of players and under goalkeeper Nikola Stosic to open the scoring midway through the first half.
The hosts pushed for an equaliser after the interval, seeing another effort cleared off the line and a goal disallowed. But JDT held out to become the first Continental champions from ASEAN since Thai Farmers Bank claimed their second of two Asian Club Championships two decades earlier.
Since Malaysian legend Safiq lifted the trophy into the Dushanbe sky, JDT have become an uncompromising dominant force in their homeland and broken into – and impressed – in the AFC Champions League, but their 2015 success remains arguably their biggest achievement to date.
Rico's back-to-back trebles
Brazilian striker Rico first displayed his goal-scoring attributes in the 2006 AFC Cup, netting seven times for Al Muharraq as the Bahraini side advanced to the final before defeat to Jordan’s Al Faisaly.
But it is the 2008 AFC Cup that he will be most remembered for as the Recife native produced arguably the finest individual campaign the competition has ever seen.
A 13-goal haul en route to the final meant Rico had the Top Scorer accolade all but wrapped up ahead of the two-legged match-up against Lebanon’s Safa, but Al Muharraq and their prolific striker had unfinished business.
With the Bahraini side a goal up in the first leg, Rico doubled their advantage from the spot just after the half hour and added another early in the second half. He then completed the first-ever hat-trick in an AFC Cup final with a little under 20 minutes to play as Al Muharraq ran out 5-1 winners.
Surely only complacency would deny Al Muharraq in the second leg and, although they fell a goal behind, Rico levelled just after the half hour and then stunned Safa with a quick-fire double shortly after the interval to claim incredible back-to-back hat-tricks.
Al Muharraq ultimately won the game 5-4 to run out 10-5 winners on aggregate while Rico finished the tournament with a whopping 19 goals to his name.
To this day, the Brazilian remains the only person to have scored a hat-trick in an AFC Cup final, while his 30 goals in the competition leaves him joint fifth in the all-time top scorers’ charts.
Altyn Asyr rise to the fore
Group stage exits in their first two AFC Cup campaigns, in 2016 and 2017, may look far from impressive on paper, but on closer inspection Altyn Asyr’s performance in the latter was an indication of things to come.
The Turkmen side had pushed Istiklol all the way in 2017, striking the post in Dushanbe in a game they needed to win, or claim a high-scoring draw, to qualify for the knockout rounds. Dilshod Vasiev’s stoppage-time goal saw the hosts advance before ultimately finishing runners-up, but Altyn Asyr would return stronger.
A similar scenario played out in 2018, but this time Altyn Asyr required victory in their final group game away to Istiklol in order to make the knockout rounds. Two goals up at half-time, qualification seemed in the bag.
The Tajik champions pulled a scrappy goal back with seven minutes remaining and suddenly there was all to play for. Then, after Vasiev was upended in the box in added time, Akhtam Nazarov’s penalty sparked jubilant celebrations among the hosts and had Altyn Asyr heading for the exit door.
But a thrilling climax became even more remarkable just moments later as the visitors desperately surged forward in the hope of one last chance and, this time, they would not be denied.
Full-back Zafar Babajanov’s delivery from the left presented Serdar Geldiyev with the chance to win it and, when his close-range header was parried out by Stosic in the Istiklol goal, substitute Mihail Titov was on hand to prod home the winner.
Joyous scenes ensued as Altyn Asyr got their revenge in the most dramatic of fashions to oust the two-time runners-up and claim their place in the knockout rounds for the first time.
They would go on to become the first side from Turkmenistan to appear in the AFC Cup final before losing to Air Force Club in Iraq, then returning a year later to eliminate Istiklol once more en route to the Inter-Zone semi-finals.
Now you've read up on the latest three AFC Cup Magic Moments, tell us which one you enjoyed most (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC +8) on April 19).
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