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Preview – 2021 AFC Cup Group E (Central Zone)

Bishkek: Continental football is set to return to Central Asia, with FC Dordoi Bishkek, Ahal FC and FC Ravshan Kulob to battle for a place in the AFC Cup knockout stage when Group E begins on Friday.

Bishkek will play host to the group, which is set to provide new twists on old regional rivalries, with only one side to advance to the Zonal final alongside the winners of the Dushanbe-based Group F.

As the countdown to the kick-off continues, join as we run the rule over the participating sides.

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The Venue

The home of the Kyrgyz Republic national team, Bishkek’s Dolen Omurzakov Stadium will play host to Group E’s three-match schedule.

The 23,000-capacity venue has been the epicentre of the Kyrgyz football scene for the best part of 80 years, serving as FC Alga’s home ground during their participation in Soviet-era football and later hosting Asian Qualifiers against the likes of Japan and Australia.

Open to the residents of Bishkek throughout the week, the stadium went 18 months without top level football until last Friday, when Alga hosted FC Abdysh-Ata in a Kyrgyz Premier League fixture.

The Group in Context

The group features two regular AFC Cup participants in Ahal and Dordoi, while Ravshan are back in the group stage after a seven-year hiatus having qualified as Tajikistan Cup winners.

For that reason, both Ahal and particularly hosts Dordoi will see Group E as a major opportunity to advance to the knockout stage.

Now firmly established as the most successful Kyrgyz Premier League club, recent continental success has eluded Dordoi, whose AFC President’s Cup successes of the mid-2000s have not translated into the AFC Cup.

With the home advantage theirs, and a pair of confidence-boosting 3-0 wins over Alga and then Kara-Balta secured in the last week, Alexander Krestinin’s side will be aiming for nothing less than a place in August’s Zonal Finals.

While Dordoi are the team to beat in their domestic scene, Ahal have earned the reputation of perennial nearly men in Turkmenistan’s Yokary Liga, finishing second behind Altyn Asyr for the past four seasons.

Ahal have never lost against Kyrgyz Republic opposition in the AFC Cup, but they will arrive lacking in match practice, with Turkmenistan the only of the participating nations in Central Asia not to have begun their domestic season.

Ravshan, on the other hand, are six games into their return to Tajikistan’s top flight, having been promoted as First League champions last season in addition to their stunning Cup triumph.

The Kulob club memorably eliminated FC Istiklol during that cup run, but they’ll be desperate to improve what is a dreadful AFC Cup record, having lost all 12 of their previous group stage matches in the tournament in 2013 and 2014.

Key Men

Serdar Geldiyev – Ahal FC

A habitual trophy-winner with Altyn Asyr from 2015 to 2019, Geldiyev returns to his native Turkmenistan after a year in Malaysian football, with Ahal sure to benefit from his class and experience in midfield.

Also comfortable playing in defence, Geldiyev captained Altyn Asyr to the 2018 AFC Cup final against Air Force Club, making him the first and only man to lead out a Turkmen side in the decider.

Mirlan Murzaev – FC Dordoi

Perhaps best remembered by Asian football fans for his goal against United Arab Emirates at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Murzaev debuted for Dordoi as a teenager way back in 2007 and remains a key player 14 years on.

The standout player as the club won the title in last year’s abbreviated Kyrgyz Premier League season, Murzaev has scored or assisted nine times in nine matches so far in 2021.

Karomatullo Saidov – FC Ravshan

A mainstay in Tajik national youth teams since 2014, and a senior international since 2018, Saidov joined newly promoted Ravshan from nearby FC Khatlon earlier this season and quickly settled in.

The central midfielder appeared in the play-offs during his time at FC Khujand in 2018 but, now 21, will be hoping to stamp his authority on the tournament proper for the first time.

Poll ends at 17:00 (UTC+8) on May 13

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