Air Force Club down Istiklol to retain AFC Cup

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Air Force Club became only the third team in history to win back-to-back AFC Cup titles after beating FC Istiklol 1-0 in Saturday’s final.

Following a goalless first half at the Hisor Central Stadium, Emad Mohsin popped up to score with an unstoppable effort in the 68th minute to win it for the Iraqi outfit.

And while there were scenes of jubilation from the Air Force camp at the final whistle, the disappointment for Istiklol was evident as they lost came up short at the last hurdle on home soil for the second time in three years.

Yet, it was difficult to refute that Air Force were not deserving champions following their displays throughout the campaign, which culminated with another fine showing on Saturday.

Despite Istiklol enjoying the majority of the support in Tajikistan, it was the visitors who started the brighter of the two teams.

Just six minutes in, they were unlucky not to draw first blood when Sebastijan Antic met Humam Tariq’s corner with a towering header, only to see it come back off the foot of the post with Nikola Stosic left stranded.

Awakened by that early scare, Istiklol began to show more initiative as they gained the upper hand in the possession stakes, while Manuchekhr Dzhalilov and Dmitry Barkov started to come to life in the final third.

Still, it was Air Force who looked the likelier to open the scoring and they had a golden opportunity to do so eight minutes after the break, when Tariq won a penalty after going down under a challenge by Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev inside the area.

The usually-deadly Hammadi Ahmad stepped up to the spot and, while he fired away a decent effort, Stosic pulled off a fine save to keep out his effort at full stretch.

Having survived another close shave, it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before Istiklol – buoyed by the vociferous support of their fans – would go on to claim the ascendancy.

Instead, it was Air Force who finally broke the deadlock in the 68th minute through an excellent team effort.

Receiving a cross from Samed Saeed, Hammadi produced a brilliant first-time layoff to divert the ball to Mohsin, who proceeded to lash a piledriver into the top corner.

With the hosts pushing more and more men forward as the final entered its closing stages, gaps also started to appear for Air Force to exploit.

Hammadi had a couple of gilt-edged opportunites to put the result beyond doubt, only to be let down by his finishing, as well as some desperate defending from the opposition defence.

Nonetheless, it mattered little in the end as Air Force held on till the end, following in the footsteps of Al Faisaly and Al Kuwait in securing a second consecutive AFC Cup crown.

FC ISTIKLOL: Nikola Stosic, Oleksandr Stetsenko, Artem Baranovskiy, Siyovush Asrorov, Akhtam Nazarov, Jahongir Aliev (Romish Jalilov 88’), Nurridin Davronov (Amirbek Juraboev 73’), David Mawutor, Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev, Manuchekhr Dzhalilov (Dilshod Vasiev 74’), Dmitry Barkov.

AIR FORCE CLUB: Fahad Talib, Sameh Saeed, Samal Saeed, Sebastijan Antic, Ali Bahjat, Zaher Midani, Khaled Mbayed, Karrar Ali (Ahmed Abdul-Ridha 90’), Emad Mohsin (Saif Salman 78’), Humam Tariq, Hammadi Ahmad.