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Analysis: Air Force Club fly high to claim second AFC Cup title

Hisor: Air Force Club have now competed in two AFC Cups and won them both after Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the final confirmed the Iraqi side as champions for the second successive year.

But, in stark contrast to the team that bagged 27 goals en route to the title last year, the Baghdad club’s success in the 2017 edition has been built on solidity at the back, and so it proved again at Hisor Central Stadium as the hosts lost their second final in three years.

Istiklol find no way past

Air Force Club went into the fixture having kept six clean sheets in 10 games and conceded just five goals. Istiklol, meanwhile, had scored 23 times prior to Saturday’s encounter, meaning the tie was billed as a classic attack versus defence.

Seven-goal Manuchehr Dzhalilov had been the Tajik side’s biggest threat in the 2017 campaign. Three times the striker had a sight of goal on Saturday, but he fired well over from the penalty spot once and saw his other two shots blocked by the visitors' stubborn defensive line.

Further up the pitch, Khaled Mbayed was a rock in the Air Force Club midfield, with his 15 duels won almost double the number of any Istiklol player. Mbayad's four successful tackles was also more than anyone on the pitch, as the classic 4-4-2 formation provided plenty of resistance. 

In the end, for the first time in the tournament, Istiklol were unable to register a single shot on target and drew their only blank of the campaign. They have now played Iraqi opposition six times in three seasons and have yet to see one of their players get on the scoresheet.

A menace down the flanks

Nobody embodied the spirit of Air Force Club quite like the combative wide man Humam Tareq, whose energy down the left flank in the first half and right side after the interval offered Istiklol no respite.

Tareq made more recoveries (9) than any other Air Force Club player, created three chances for his teammates and won more fouls (5) than anyone else on his side. Indeed, it was the busy Iraq international who was brought down for his team’s penalty early in the second half.

The diminutive midfielder was also unlucky not to see his free-kick late in the game nestle in the bottom left corner with a curling effort that would have capped a fine display.

Rightful winners

But, despite success being built on solid foundations, this was no smash and grab from the holders. They may have conceded almost two-thirds of possession (63.7%), but they created the better chances, had more shots on goal and undoubtedly deserved their win.

Zaher Al Medani’s early header against the post was a let off for the hosts and only Nikola Stosic’s superb penalty save from captain Hammadi Ahmed prevented Air Force Club taking the lead shortly after the restart.

By the time Emad Mohsin rocketed the ball into the back of the net midway through the second half, there only looked like one winner, before Ahmed really should have made the winning margin wider but spurned two late opportunities.

Photos: Lagardère Sports