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Preview – AFC Cup Group F (Central Zone)

Dushanbe: The AFC Cup is back and bigger than ever, particularly in the Central Zone where seven clubs across two groups are set to battle for regional supremacy.

In the Dushanbe-based Group F, Uzbekistan’s Nasaf return for the first time since becoming the competition’s only Central Asian champions a decade ago, while FC Khujand, FC Alay and Altyn Asyr will continue their search for a continental breakthrough.

So, who are the stars, what are their stories and who is likely to join the winners of Group G in the knockout stage? Join as we analyse the contenders.

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The Venue

The home of football in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, Republican Central Stadium, formerly known as Pamir Stadium, has served as a fortress for local sides since the mid 20th-century,

Even the most established clubs feared a trip to the venue in the final years of Soviet football, with Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kyiv just a couple of the big names who suffered bruising defeats against Pamir’s local stars in the early 1990s.

In the modern era, the venue has served as the main venue for the Tajikistan national team and played a significant role in AFC Cup history, hosting the 2015 final between Johor Darul Ta’zim and FC Istiklol.

The Group in Context

In a group full of AFC Cup regulars, much of the focus falls on the return of 2011 champions FC Nasaf, who will compete in the competition for the first time since their landmark victory over Kuwait SC a decade ago.

It’s been nine years since any team from Uzbekistan appeared in the tournament, and – as one of their nation’s leading sides – Nasaf will be gunning for nothing less than first place in this group.

A regular producer of some the region’s top young talent in recent years, Ruzikul Berdiev’s side currently features emerging stars like Oybek Bozorov, Akmal Mozgovoy, Abdukvakhid Nematov and Sherzod Nasrullaev and a recent 6-0 league win over Termez Surkhon showed how damaging they can be.

The first team to face up to the Nasaf challenge will be Alay, the historic club from the south of Kyrgyz Republic who have regularly qualified for the AFC Cup, but have managed just two victories in more than 20 matches on the continental stage.

Having qualified as winners of a 2020 Kyrgyz Republic Cup which didn’t feature league winners FC Dordoi, Alay have started the 2021 season well under Tajikistani head coach Numonjon Yusupov, but they’ll arrive in Dushanbe fresh from a deeply disappointing 3-1 derby defeat to city rivals FC Kaganat.

Friday’s other clash will be crucial, with Tajikistan's FC Khujand and Altyn Asyr of Turkmenistan both aware a defeat could put their hopes of progression in immediate jeopardy.

Khujand will look to use home advantage as a platform to their first appearance in the knockout stage of a continental competition, having picked up impressive but sporadic wins in recent editions of the tournament,

Their recent form is promising. They’ve piled on 14 goals in six matches to rocket to the top of their domestic league in the temporary absence of FC Istiklol, with Artem Serdyuk and Dilshod Bozorov netting seven between them.

Altyn Asyr will arrive having lifted a record seventh successive league title last season, but are yet to kick a ball this season, potentially putting them at a disadvantage in relation to their match-fit group rivals.

They became the first team from Turkmenistan to reach the AFC Cup final back in 2018 but the Ashgabat outfit, and seasoned coach Yazguly Hojageldiyev, will need to be at their very best if they are to repeat that achievement three years on.

Key Men

Altymurad Annadurdiyev – Altyn Asyr

Who was Asia’s most prolific league scorer of 2020? Michael Olunga and Junior Negrao lit up some of East Asia's big leagues, while Al Hilal's Bafetimbi Gomis did the same in the West, but none of those players could manage the huge numbers of Altymyrat Annadurdyev’s blistering campaign in Turkmenistan.

The striker bagged 35 goals in the 28-match season, finishing 19 ahead of his nearest rival on the scoring charts and racking up the biggest individual haul in Turkmen football in a quarter of a century.

Now 28, Annadurdiyev also has a strong history in the AFC Cup, scoring 15 times in 26 appearances in the competition.

Artem Serdyuk – FC Khujand

While Annadurdiyev will lead the line for Altyn Asyr, group hosts Khujand will be looking to 31-year-old Russian striker Artem Serdyuk, who has made the early part of the season his own with five goals in six matches.

Signed from Belarusian side Slutsk at the start of the year, the former FC Rostov junior has taken to Tajikistan like a duck to water, with his size and experience making him a formidable threat in the 18-yard box.

Akhlidin Israilov – FC Alay

Back in his homeland after an odyssey which took him from Dynamo Kyiv’s youth setup to four different destinations in Asia, Israilov has excelled so far in Osh, scoring three goals in four matches as Alay hit form last month.

The scorer of Kyrgyz Republic’s first ever AFC Asian Cup goal two years ago, Irsrailov is a talented attacking midfielder whose broad range of experiences will make him a key component of Alay’s bid to advance.

Marko Stanojevic – FC Nasaf

Nasaf can rightly be proud of their ability to keep producing young Uzbek talent, but it is 32-year-old Serbian Marko Stanojevic who is most likely to fill the highlight reel in this year’s AFC Cup.

The central midfielder has scored four goals from outside the box already this season – two of them outrageous free- kicks – and his reputation as a goal threat from virtually anywhere is well earned.

If Nasaf are awarded a free-kick even remotely close to their opponents’ penalty area in the coming week; do not look away.

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

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