Bengaluru FC came away from Pyongyang with a clean sheet and progress to the next round of the Inter-Zonal final of the AFC Cup 2017.
The Blues reached the penultimate round of the Asia’s second-tier competition for elite clubs for a second consecutive year after having lost the final to Iraq’s Air-Force Club last season.
Last year, they beat the 2015 AFC Champions Johor Baru of Malaysia in a high-voltage semifinal clash and will be hoping to do the same against Istiklol FC of Tajikistan, who beat Ceres Negros of Philippines 5-1 on aggregate to progress to the semis.
“They are a very, very good team. They (are from Central Asia) play like a team from the Middle-East. It’s going to be tough,” said Mandar Tamhane, Chief Technical Officer of Bengaluru FC.
The Crowns from Tajikistan have finished top of their league five times in the last five years and have won the domestic cup an equal number of times. Incidentally, Istiklol lost to Johor in the 2015 AFC Cup final, with the team from Malaysia winning by a single goal.
Artem Baranovskiy was shown a straight red in the second half of their Inter-Zonal final cup semifinal and will miss the first leg against BFC. The Blues will have the advantage of playing the second leg at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.
Tamhane mentions they ideally want to get an away goal in Dushanbe. This will also be a match-up of two solid defensive units. BFC’s new-look defence has kept back-to-back clean sheets – the latest, a commendable one in North Korea. While they have conceded six goals in eight AFC Cup matches this season, Istiklol have let in one fewer in the same number of matches.
“It is heartening to see this. We assembled this team at short notice and its commendable that they performed the way they did in difficult circumstances,” said Tamnhane.
The Blues conceded a penalty when Rahul Bheke brought down An Il-Bom in the box, but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu dived to his right denying midfielder Ri Hyong Jin’s effort from 12 yards.
Won Song hit the crossbar for the home team as the team’s new custodian and the defence held firm.
Bengaluru started with an unchanged line-up from the first leg as Subhashish Bose, Malsawmzuala and Daniel Lalhlimpuia came on for Nishu Kumar, Lenny Rodrigues and Antonio Dovale.
BFC’s CTO says contact with the team was minimal as they kept in touch via the landlines at the team hotel, amid internet blackout.
“We were supposed to travel on the 8th but Foundation Day in North Korea meant that we had to postpone our plans and landed just 48 hours before the game. It’s not easy, playing in jet-lagged conditions. With 15 bags of kits and equipment going missing and arriving just a day before the game, the players had to train in makeshift gear on the eve of the clash. Visa issues were also present as we couldn’t process it while the national team players were away playing Macau. Finally, the AFC officials intervened and we got it done on time,” Tamhane spoke of the challenges that Bengaluru FC faced.
Mandar says there are a lot of positives to be taken away from this game. “When you go out there, all these issues take a backseat. When the team goes and actually experiences this, mentally they have to be very strong. This is also a victory for the staff nowhere in the forefront,” he hailed BFC’s operational staff.
With their North Korean sojourn over, Tamhane said there were ‘no more excuses’. “We were very happy with the draft and the performances have just fortified our belief. They are playing the way the coach wants them to play. This is the reason we played in Spain against European teams, we wanted tougher opposition and tougher games.”
With the away leg first up on September 27th, the West Zonal final will decide the other finalist a day prior, with Syria’s Al-Wahda leading last season’s champions Air Force Club of Iraq by two goals to one.
Bengaluru. Al-Wahda. Air Force. Istiklol. They’ve all played in the final before but Air Force is the only one to have won the competition. The other three will be looking for a second shot at the cherry.
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