Kuala Lumpur: The group stage of the 2021 AFC Cup Central Asia Zone is now complete with the 2011 winners FC Nasaf of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan's Ahal FC booking their places in the knockout rounds.
As the two sides look ahead to September's Central Asia Zonal final and the five eliminated teams aim to come back stronger in 2022, the-AFC.com looks at the key takeaways from Groups E and F.
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Nasaf continue where they left off
The champions who never defended their crown returned to the AFC Cup after a decade's absence as 2011 winners FC Nasaf showed their intent in the 2021 group stage. The Uzbek club tallied a flawless record of three wins from three with nine scored and none conceded to cruise into the knockout stage much like they did 10 years ago when they also registered a perfect record.
And, if anything, the results downplay their dominance. The Karshi team's three goals per game came from 24.6 shots and 645 passes per match with an average possession of 71.9 percent, by far the most of any team in this year's Central Zone's fixtures.
And their qualities could be seen throughout the team with striker Khusain Norchaev, midfielder Shohmalik Komilov and defender Khusniddin Alikulov all tied as the top scorers for Nasaf from the group ties with two goals apiece. However, if there could be one area for improvement from what was an impressive campaign opening, Nasaf were guilty of some wastefulness in front of goal.
Of the Uzbek side's 74 shots on goal, just 18 were on target, only one more than Dordoi FC (17) and two more than Ahal FC (16). The 2011 class netted 30 goals from their six matches and it's that kind of clinical finishing that Nasaf may need to rediscover if they wish to replicate the success of their predecessors and go all the way to the title.
Ahal follow in Altyn Asyr's footsteps
Altyn Asyr have created history for Turkmen club football in recent years, becoming the first side from their country to reach the AFC Cup knockout rounds in 2018, when they eventually finished as runners-up, and again advancing from the group stage in 2019. Between the years of 2015 and 2018, meanwhile, Ahal twice appeared in the competition but never came close to progressing to the next round.
However, kept away from regional heavyweights Nasaf, and in the three-team Group E, the 2021 edition offered the side from Ashgabat the chance to break new ground. And it was an opportunity they grasped with both hands as successive wins over Tajikistan's Ravshan Kulob and Kyrgyz Republic's Dordoi saw them advance with minimal fuss.
Key to their success has been captain Elman Tagayev. In Ahal's opener with Ravshan, he had already tested the 'keeper with a fizzing shot from distance before a well-taken quick-fire brace had his side two up inside 20 minutes, while his goal against Dordoi confirmed qualification. In total, the forward mustered 10 shots in two games (above image versus Ravshan), with a hugely impressive seven on target.
In midfield, meanwhile, Resul Hojayev has been pulling the strings. The 24-year-old weighed in with a pair of assists on Matchday One and made more passes (96) than any other player on his team over two games as his performances have helped keep established Turkmen international Serdar Geldiyev out of the side.
While Nasaf will start the Central Asia Zonal final as favourites, Ahal's performances have shown that the Uzbek side should not take them lightly.
Mixed campaigns for Tajik and Kyrgyz Teams
With regional powerhouse and two-time AFC Cup runners-up FC Istiklol competing – and excelling – in the AFC Champions League this year, the stage was set for FC Khujand and Ravshan Kulob to step forward for Tajik football.
Making their second appearance in the competition, Khujand can be satisfied with their performances as they picked up a draw and a win against Altyn Asyr and Alay, and they may feel unfortunate to have been drawn alongside Nasaf. It was, however, a disappointing campaign for Ravshan, who were well beaten in both their matches and whose AFC Cup record now reads: played 14, lost 14.
As hosts of Group E, Kyrgyz Republic's dominant club side Dordoi will likely have fancied their chances of progressing, but a 2-0 defeat in their first game to Ahal saw them immediately eliminated. While they recovered to round off the group stage with a win over Ravshan, they may well rue the opening-day loss when they posted 17 shots to Ahal's 14 but failed to take their chances.
Alay's highlight, meanwhile, was an end-to-end 5-4 loss to Altyn Asyr when they were unfortunate not to pick up a point after conceding deep into stoppage time. But a leaky defence saw them let in more goals per game (3.7) than any other side in the Central Asia Zone as they exited following three defeats from three.
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