All to play for in the AFC Cup

It’s an AFC-fest this week, with the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League quarter-finalists set to be decided.

While the AFC Champions League round of 16 ties are played over two legs, it’s do-or-die in the AFC Cup, with clubs having just 90 minutes to secure their spot in the last eight.

In the East Zone of the AFC Cup, Ceres-La Salle are in action first up, taking on South China of Hong Kong. The Filipino outfit surprised the Asian stage by coming top of Group E, unbeaten, and at the expense of Malaysian giants Selangor FC.

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The reigning United Football League Division 1 champions thrashed Agila-Manila 10-1 last Wednesday and will hope to take that form into the Cup.

Despite this, Ceres coach Franklin Muescan is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s hard to pinpoint any weakness in South China, but from our end, we want to show that we have good team spirit and we believe in the quality and capability of our players,” he said.

South China showed what they’re capable by beating Mohun Bagan 3-0 in the final round of the group stage to complete a three-match winning streak that saw them come back from the dead to grab a place in the last 16.

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It’s on the back of this run that South China coach Ricardo Rambo has said that his side are feeling confident heading into their clash with the heavy-hitting Ceres.

“We’ve had good results in the past three games, but this game is very important and we want to do well in the AFC Cup,” Rambo said. “The team morale is very high and we’re very eager to get a win to reach the next round, which is important for a club with history like South China.

Group E runners-up Tampines Rovers head to India to face Mohun Bagan. After a mouth-watering showdown against Selangor, featuring a stand-out performance from Jermaine Pennant, the Mighty Stags took the final qualifying spot with a 1-0 victory at the National Stadium.

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The two teams have already faced off this season, with Mohun Bagan claiming a 3-1 victory in an AFC Champions League qualifying clash.

However, Tampines coach V. Sundramoorthy believes that the Tuesday’s match will be a very different beast.

“We were in pre-season mood then and now it’s different because it’s midway through our season,” he explained. “We have many games under our belt and mentally and physically we are ready.”

Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen echoed his opposite number’s sentiments.

“The last time we played Tampines, it was different. There are a lot of changes so it will be a different ball game,” said Sen. “They have strengthened the team so it will be tough for us.”

Matters are made tougher for the I-League side by the fact that they will be without key players midfielder Katsumi Yusa and forward Sony Norde, but they remain favourites to secure the win.

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Along with Ceres, Kaya FC are also looking to book their place in the quarter-finals.

It’s an historic year in the competition for the Philippines with not one but two sides in the knockout phase. It’s the first time any side from the Southeast Asian island nation has made it to the last 16. Makati-based Kaya play Group H toppers Johor Darul Ta’zim F.C. in Malaysia.

Kaya know that that they are up against it as they travel to Johor to face the defending champions, but spirits in the camp remain high.

JDT head into the clash on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of Pahang. The Southern Tigers have won six trophies in the last three year and have their eye on further silverware.

“I want to see consistency from JDT, where the players and coach also have the same desire like me,” JDT owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim recently told The Star.

“I want to make sure that JDT will always compete at the highest level – which is the AFC Cup or the Asian Champions League.”

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After making it to the final of the Hong Kong Season Play-off on Sunday, Kitchee SC host Bengaluru FC of India in their round of 16 tie.

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