Kuala Lumpur: The AFC Cup was reshaped into five zones in 2017 and regional rivalry became an even bigger feature as the competition moved into an exciting new era.
In just over a week’s time, the 2019 edition will return to action with Vietnamese teams Hanoi FC and Becamex Binh going head-to-head in the ASEAN Zonal final, with both a place in the Inter-Zone semi-finals and bragging rights on the line.
To whet the appetite ahead of the encounter, the-AFC.com looks back on five standout moments from the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal knockout rounds over the past three years.
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1. Ceres oust Johor
(Ceres Negros 2-1 Johor Darul Ta’zim, 4-4 aggregate – Ceres win on away goals)
When Johor Darul Ta’zim won the 2015 AFC Cup after defeating Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the final, they not only became the first side from Malaysia to lift the trophy, but also the ASEAN region.
After reaching the semi-finals a year later, they were clear favourites to finish as the inaugural ASEAN Zonal champions, but Ceres Negros had not read the script.
Johor recovered from being 2-1 down at home in the first leg to post a 3-2 victory but, rapidly developing into the Philippines’ dominant force, Ceres were not done.
Kota Kawase (pictured) put Ceres a goal up in the return meeting and, after Johor leveled midway through the second half, striker Fernando struck a stoppage-time penalty to send the Filipino side into the Zonal final.
2. Plazibat breaks Global hearts_
(Home United 3-2 Global FC, 5-4 aggregate)_
With Global FC also in the ASEAN Zonal semi-finals, 2017 was proving a great year for Filipino club football, particularly as the country’s first taste of AFC Cup football had come just two years earlier.
Up against Singapore’s Home United, a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Manila had left the tie firmly in the balance, although Stipe Plazibat’s 95th-minute equaliser had put a dampener on Global’s night.
But when Shu Sasaki put Global 2-1 up after the interval in Singapore, not only had they cancelled out Home’s away goals, they were also looking good for a place in the Zonal final. Enter Plazibat.
With a minute left on the clock the Croatian finished from close in, but worse was to follow for Global as, with extra-time looming, he curled in a sumptuous free-kick into the back of the net as Home advanced to the ASEAN final, where they ultimately lost to Ceres.
3. Persija roar silenced
(Persija Jakarta 1-3 Home United, 3-6 aggregate)
The arrival of Persija Jakarta into Continental club football in 2018 certainly added spice to the competition, with a crowd of more than 60,000 in the group stage against Johor breaking an AFC Cup attendance record that had stood since 2010.
Spurred on by passionate support, Persija gathered momentum and qualified for the Zonal semi-finals, where a 3-2 first-leg defeat away at Home United was considered far from disastrous given what awaited at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
Some 62,198 set yet another new AFC Cup attendance record but the visitors stunned them into silence when Shahril Ishak netted either side of a Mario Simic penalty to put the Singaporeans 2-1 up after just 12 minutes.
Things would go from bad to worse for Persija as defender Jaimerson Xavier was dismissed eight minutes before the interval, and Song Ui-young killed off any hope of a comeback by putting Home 3-1 up in the 44th minute.
4. On-song Home gain revenge
(Home United 2-0 Ceres Negros, 3-2 aggregate)
Ceres had overcome a first-leg deficit in the 2017 final to edge past Home 3-2 on aggregate en route to the Inter-Zone semi-finals, but the Singaporean side would have a chance for revenge in the ASEAN Zonal final a year later.
A 1-1 draw in Bacolod City left all to play for in Singapore in what would be the sixth meeting between the teams in the space of 12 months, after they had also been paired together in the group stage.
The game remained scoreless at the interval, with Home’s away goal in the Philippines meaning Ceres had to score in the second half but, without their prolific striker Bienvenido Maranon, they were finding the going tough.
Shakir Hamzah gave the hosts breathing space with just under half an hour to go before the prolific Song Ui-young ensured there would be no repeat of 2017 as a place in the Inter-Zone semi-final was secured.
5. Vietnamese sides survive late scares
(Hanoi FC defeat Ceres Negros 3-2 on aggregate; Becamex Binh Duong defeat PSM Makassar on away goals after 2-2 aggregate draw)_
While the Vietnamese national team won the 2018 AFF Championship and reached the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 quarter-finals, the country’s club sides had yet to stamp their authority on the AFC Cup.
But with both Hanoi and Binh Duong having reached the 2019 ASEAN Zonal semi-finals, the prospects looked good, especially after the former secured a 1-1 draw away at Ceres and the latter saw off Indonesia’s PSM Makassar 1-0 in their respective first-leg match-ups.
Pape Omar Faye and Nguyen Van Quyet put Hanoi two up after the interval in the Vietnamese capital and, although Ceres struck a late goal, they were unable to find what would have been a winning second as the hosts' excellent run continued.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, Wander Luiz's goal had Binh Duong 2-0 up on aggregate and seemingly coasting, but two goals in the final 15 minutes meant a nervy final few minutes for the visitors, who ultimately held out to advance.
The two Vietnamese teams will now square off in the first-ever same-country match in the ASEAN Zonal knockout rounds, with the first leg to be played in Binh Duong on July 31 and the return meeting in Hanoi on August 7.
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