Philippine outfit Ceres Negros’ bid for AFC Cup glory resumes on Tuesday evening when they take on Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the first leg of their inter-zone semi-final.
Risto Vidakovic’s charges head to Dushanbe on a high after defeating Home United over two legs in the zonal finals earlier this month, becoming the tournament’s first-ever ASEAN champions in the process.
Ceres are now just two ties away from reaching the AFC Cup final, where they will face one of two West Asian giants with Iraq’s Al Wahda and Syrian club Al Quwa Al Jawiya set to face off in their own zonal final next month.
First, the Busmen have the task of seeing off Tajikistan double champions Istiklol, who emerged as the top team from Central Asia.
For those unfamiliar with Tajik football’s newest giants, FOX Sports Asia brings to you the lowdown on them ahead of Tuesday’s first leg at the Pamir Stadium.
Founded as recently as November of 2007, Istiklol made an instant impact as they won promotion from the second tier in their inaugural campaign.
While most newly-promoted, fledgling clubs may have struggled for survival, it has been quite the opposite for them.
In their eight seasons as a top-flight team, Istiklol have been crowned Tajik League champions on five occasions, while picking up six Tajik Cups along the way.
They have usurped Regar-TadAZ as the dominant force in the country and it seems only a matter of time before they better their rivals’ current record of seven league titles.
— FC Istiklol Dushanbe (@fcistiklol_2007) August 20, 2017
AFC Cup pedigree
Istiklol are no strangers to continental competition, having initially made their AFC debut in the now-defunct President’s Cup, which they won in 2012 after beating Syria’s Markaz Shabab Al Am’ari in the final.
Their first taste of the AFC Cup then arrived in 2015 and they performed remarkably well to finish top of their group and reach the semi-finals.
It was in the last four where they found themselves trailing 4-0 to Kuwait SC after the first leg but, due to a FIFA suspension being imposed on the Kuwait Football Association, Istiklol were awarded a place in the final.
Despite being in the ascendancy for much of that match, the Tajiks were just incapable of capitalising on their dominance, allowing Johor Darul Ta’zim to claim a snatch-and-grab 1-0 triumph.
There was no such joy for them last term as they finished bottom of their group with just one point from six games, although they have already gone some way in making amends in 2017.
How they got this far
The new format of the AFC Cup this year meant that Istiklol has had a relatively more straightforward route to get this far than their upcoming opponents.
With only four Central Asian teams participating in the main draw, they only had to finish top of Group D to advance.
They did face stern resistance from Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr, with the two clubs facing off against one another on the final match day both tied on 13 points.
A 0-0 draw would have been enough to see Istiklol scrape through due to a superior head-to-head record, which would have been only courtesy of an away goal scored in their earlier encounter.
But, in the second minute of injury-time, Dilshod Vasiev netted the only goal of the game to make sure of his side’s progress to the inter-zone semi-finals.
It is often said that the key to any good team is a strong spine and Istiklol coach Mukhsin Mukhamadiev certainly seems to agree with his choice of foreigners.
It starts right at the back with Serbian goalkeeper Nikola Stosic, who has Artem Baranovskyi – formerly with Ukrainian Premier League outfit Metalurh Donestk – amongst his protectors.
Adding plenty of bite and drive in the middle of the park is Ghanaian midfielder David Mawutor, while, up front, Russian Dmitry Barkov is the team’s chief creative influence in the attacking third.
While Istiklol’s overseas contingent do play vital roles for this side, this is one team that is not solely dependent on their imported players.
Mukhamadiev has at his disposal more than ten current Tajikistan internationals, with over 200 caps between the lot.
Vasiev and midfielder Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev are the two most experienced campaigners in the team, although the star name in the side has to be Manuchekhr Dzhalilov.
The 26-year-old racked up five goals in the group stage, including a brilliant hat-trick 4-1 victory away to Alay Osh.
There are many facets to Dzhalilov’s game but his main strength is his predatory finishing and he has already netted seven times for Tajikistan in their ongoing quest to qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Ceres’ Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, Junior Munoz, Kevin Ingreso and Luke Woodland will all be familiar with what Dzhalilov is capable of, having played against him in Philippines 4-3 Asian Cup qualifier win over Tajikistan just two months ago.
— AFC Cup (@AFCCup) August 20, 2017
What they said
“Every team that take part in the competition have the target of winning, of course, but I really think that we can win the cup. Of course, we respect Ceres Negros because they have reached the semi-finals and I expect it will be a very interesting match, as it always is at this level. I have only one feeling: I want to win. This is the same for all of my team-mates.” – FC Istiklol striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov on the AFC’s official website