Kuala Lumpur: The 2019 AFC Cup Inter-Zone Final is rapidly approaching as Vietnam’s Hanoi FC and 4.25 SC or DPR Korea aim to book their ticket to the Continental showpiece on November 2.
The two-legged match-up will be the third Inter-Zone Final since the competition changed to its regional format at the beginning of 2017, with the Central Asian champions coming out on top in each of the last two years.
As the champions of the East Asia and ASEAN Zones get set to face off for a place in the final, the-AFC.com looks back at the past two editions, where hard-fought contests have seen plenty of drama.
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FC Istiklol vs JSW Bengaluru, 2017
(Istiklol win 3-2 on aggregate)
The 2015 and 2016 runners-up went head-to-head in 2017, with both desperate to make up for the heartbreak of missing out in previous finals, and it was to be the champions of Tajikistan who would come out on top.
Dmitri Barkov’s superb diving header saw Istiklol secure a narrow 1-0 victory in the first leg in Hisor and left the Indian side with plenty to do in the return meeting at Sree Kanteerava Stadium, where the Russian would again prove to be the hero.
An early Nuriddin Davronov penalty gave Istiklol breathing space, although fan favourite Rahul Bheke headed home the equaliser midway through the first half to offer the home support hope. But when Harmanjot Khabra was sent off for a second bookable offence shortly before the interval, Bengaluru were left with a mountain to climb.
Barkov tapped home 10 minutes after half-time to mean the hosts needed three goals to advance and, although Sunil Chhetri netted from the spot, Istiklol sealed their place in the final, where a 1-0 loss to Iraq’s Air Force Club meant they again missed out on the Continental title.
4.25 SC vs Altyn Asyr, 2018
(Altyn Asyr win on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate scoreline)
Turkmenistan champions Altyn Asyr got the better of Istiklol in the group stage and Bengaluru in the Inter-Zone semi-finals to advance to the Inter-Zone Final, where they would meet East Asia Zonal champions 4.25, who had cruised past Singapore’s Home United 11-1 on aggregate in the previous round.
In in-form An Il-bom put 4.25 in front in Pyongyang before Vahyt Orazsahedov levelled soon after, only for Kim Yu-song to give the hosts a 2-1 lead at the interval following an entertaining first half.
Selim Nurmyradov equalised late on to secure a 2-2 draw and ensure Altyn Asyr began the second leg with a slender advantage, although when Han Song-hyok headed 4.25 in front in Ashgabat, it was the Koreans who were on course to reach the final.
But An missed the chance to all but seal 4.25’s passage when his spot-kick was saved by Mammet Orazmuhamedov early in the second half and, to make matters worse, Orazsahedov scored a penalty at the other end midway through the half as the eventual 3-3 draw saw Altyn Asyr progress on away goals.
Just like their Central Asian counterparts Istiklol a year earlier, though, the Turkmen side lost out to Air Force Club in the final following a 2-0 defeat in which Nurmyradov missed from the spot.
For the first time, there will be no Central Asian side in the Inter-Zone Final this year, as East and ASEAN square off for the right to face either Lebanon's Al Ahed or Al Jazeera of Jordan in the final.
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