The AFC Cup Final: 2016-2018
Kuala Lumpur: While the AFC Cup trophy spent a year outside West Asia after Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim claimed the 2015 title, it was to be emphatically taken back by a side that would write their name into the history books.
The-AFC.com continues its look back on tournaments gone by with the three most recent editions prior to the 2019 campaign as Iraq's Air Force Club complete a stunning hat-trick, a new Zonal format is introduced and attendance records are shattered.
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2016 – The Dynasty Begins
The 2015 AFC Cup final was the first time in the competition's history that a team from West Asia failed to make it to the climax, but a year later the region would make a return as Air Force Club progressed all the way to the main event in their maiden appearance.
In their way stood India’s Bengaluru FC, who themselves were in the tournament for only the second time and became the first Indian side to reach the final of an AFC club competition as, for the third successive year, a new champion would be crowned.
The 2016 AFC Cup final was an opportunity for both finalists to create history for their countries as no Iraqi or Indian side had ever won an AFC club tournament.
Although Air Force Club dominated the majority of the encounter, Bengaluru stood firm at the back until they finally gave way in the 70th minute when Amjed Radhi dribbled his way into the box past three Bengaluru defenders before squaring the ball for Hammadi Ahmad to tap into an empty net.
Bengaluru threw men forward in search of an equaliser but Ahmad’s 16th goal of the tournament proved to be decisive as Air Force Club became the first Iraqi team to win the AFC Cup following defeats for Erbil in the 2012 and 2014 finals.
It's no surprise that with 16 goals in 12 matches Hammadi Ahmad of Air Force Club was the pick of the bunch at the 2016 AFC Cup.
The Iraqi striker scored in every fixture of the tournament bar one and enjoyed a triple celebration by the end as he scored the final's only goal, claimed the Top Scorer award and was named the competition's MVP.
Did You Know?
It all got a bit complicated when it came to working out the representatives from Malaysia and Singapore for the 2016 AFC Cup.
Singapore's LionsXII were the 2015 Malaysia FA Cup winners and thus ineligible to represent Malaysia in AFC club competitions, while back in Singapore the 2015 S.League champions were Brunei DPMM a side from Brunei Darussalam and thus ineligible to represent Singapore in AFC club competitions.
Moreover, since Albirex Niigata Singapore, the 2015 Singapore Cup winners and third place in the league, is a satellite team of Japanese club Albirex Niigata, they were also ineligible!
Ultimately, Selangor, Tampines Rovers and Balestier Khalsa represented Malaysia and Singapore respectively.
2017 – Game of Zones
The AFC Cup saw widespread changes to the tournament's format for the 2017 edition with the competition split into zones, with the respective Zonal champions fighting it out in the knockout stages.
Defending champions Air Force Club became West Zonal champions after defeating Syrian side Al Wahda and faced Inter-Zone champions FC Istiklol in the final.
Istiklol were to host the AFC Cup final for the second time in three years, after they had lost the 2015 final to Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim in Dushanbe. This time, Hisor Central Stadium was the host venue, with 20,000 fans turning up.
After an action-packed but goalless first half, the Iraqi side broke the deadlock in the 68th minute, when a cross from Sameh Saeed was flicked on by Hammadi Ahmad to reach Emad Mohsin who unleashed a fierce half-volley that nestled into the top right corner.
Air Force Club would go on to weather the Tajik storm for the remainder of the match to celebrate a second AFC Cup title in a row.
FC Istiklol striker Manuchehr Dzhalilov played an important role in his side's return to the AFC Cup final and led the line with authority up front.
He top scored for the club in the tournament with seven goals and, despite his disappointment after defeat, he was consoled with the MVP award and a nomination for 2017 AFC Player of the Year.
Did You Know?
With the AFC Cup introducing a zonal format for the first time the inaugural regional champions were: Filipino side Ceres Negros (ASEAN), 4.25 SC of DPR Korea (EAST), India's JSW Bengaluru (South), FC Istiklol of Tajikistan (Central) and Iraqi club Air Force Club (West).
2018 – Back-To-Back-To-Back
A record 44 teams competed in the 2018 AFC Cup as Benfica Macau and Hang Yuan FC became the first representatives from Macau and Chinese Taipei respectively. While the step up proved too much for Hang Yuan, who exited without picking up a point, Benfica won four of their six group stage games and were unlucky not to reach the knockout rounds.
Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr had been enjoying a steady rise in recent years and they produced their best performance yet by defeating DPR Korea's 4.25 SC in the Inter-Zone final to progress to the showpiece event against two-time defending champions Air Force Club of Iraq.
The final was hosted in Iraq for the second time after Continental club football had returned to the country earlier in the year and almost 25,000 spectators descended on Karbala Sports City to witness history in the making.
And the home support were on their feet midway through the first half as Hammadi Ahmad capitalised on a defensive error to put the hosts in front, before Ibrahim Bayesh headed in a second as the hour approached.
Altyn Asyr were handed an opportunity to pull one back shortly after, only for Selim Nurmaradov to blast his penalty well over the crossbar as the Iraqi powerhouse went on to lift an unprecedented third successive title, a success made even sweeter by the fact they could enjoy it in front of their own fans.
While there were telling contributions from Altyn Asyr's Vahyt Orazsahedov and the 2018 AFC Cup's top scorer An Il-bom of 4.25 SC, among others, Hammadi Ahmad once again was able to deliver the goods when it mattered most.
Having scored just twice in the group stage, the striker went on to net home and away against Lebanon's Al Ahed and Jordan's Al Jazeera in the West Asia Zonal semi-finals and final before opening the scoring in the main event as he tallied six goals in five knockout round matches.
Did You Know?
The AFC Cup attendance record was broken twice in 2018 as, first, 60,157 fans turned up at Persija Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno Stadium to see Marko Simic score all four goals in the Indonesian side's 4-0 win over Johor Darul Ta'zim in the group stage.
Then, in the Inter-Zone semi-final against Home United, Persija bettered that total as an incredible 62,198 were in attendance for the visit of Home United, only for the majority to leave disappointed as the Singaporean team progressed 6-3 on aggregate following a 3-1 win.
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