FC Istiklol v Bengaluru FC
AFC Cup Inter-Zone final 1st leg
Wednesday, September 27, 7:30 pm IST
Hisor Central Stadium, Hisor
In what is effectively a semi-final for the AFC Cup this year, 2015 runners-up Istiklol of Tajikistan face Bengaluru FC, the losing finalists of 2016, with a chance to face the defending champions Air Force Club of Iraq, winners in the West Zone with an away goal in a 2-2 aggregate score against Syria's Al-Wahda, in the final on November 4.
Dushanbe-based Istiklol are coming off a 5-0 win in their 16th and final league match of the season over the weekend. They finished their domestic campaign as champions, unbeaten with 13 wins, three draws and 50 goals scored and just seven conceded. However, they come into the AFC Cup game with three regular starters suspended, including influential foreigners -- Ghanaian midfielder David Mawutor and defender Artem Baranovskyi of Ukraine. Attacking midfielder Amirbek Juraboev is also suspended for this game, and it would be interesting to see coach Mukhsin Mukhamadiev's strategy in the absence of his key players.
This is new-look Bengaluru's third competitive game since the Indian Super League (ISL) draft, but the newcomers have come into the team seamlessly for coach Albert Roca. Roca has no injury or suspension worries, and is likely to field the same eleven that beat 4.25 SC of North Korea 3-0 at home and held them goalless away in Pyongyang. That would mean a likely back three of Rahul Bheke, Juan Antonio and Erik Paartalu, with Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar affording width on the flanks. Sunil Chhetri will lead the attack, alongside Toni Dovale and Udanta Singh, with Lenny Rodrigues shoring up the centre of midfield with Dimas Delgado.
Form guide (last five matches, most recent first)
FC Istiklol: WDWWW
Bengaluru FC: DWWW
In the spotlight
Since his arrival to BFC, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been one of the club's pillars of strength, but one player who revelled in the rain at home against 4.25 and would be itching to make a similar impact again is Harmanjot Khabra. Khabra was instrumental in setting up the penalty that set BFC on their way, and his role both in overlapping across both flanks was as important as his work in cleaning up in defence. Istiklol would be wary of the threat from the flanks of players such as Chhetri and Udanta, and that's where Khabra, with his vision and experience, can prove a handful for the Tajikistan team.
Istiklol have been one of the most prolific teams in this year's AFC Cup, and much of that has had to do with forward and Tajikistan international Manuchehr Dzhalilov, who has scored seven of their 20 goals. Dzhalilov's goals in the group stages included a hat-trick away to Kazakh team Dordoi Bishkek, and his record in international football of 14 goals in 21 appearances stands as evidence of his ability to find the net with regularity.
Stats and trivia
Istiklol have thus far scored 20 goals and conceded just five from eight AFC Cup games this season. BFC have scored 10 and conceded six from the same number of matches played.
BFC's 10 goals have come from eight different scorers, but only Sunil Chhetri (three) has scored more than one. Six of BFC's goalscorers in this year's AFC Cup are no longer with the team for the knockout stages of the tournament.
Istiklol have scored at least one goal in every AFC Cup match this season, and also scored four goals in a match three times. The most recent occasion for the Tajikistan league's reigning champions came in the first leg of the Inter-Zone semi-finals, when they beat Ceres Negros of Philippines 4-0 at home in the first leg in August.
When Bengaluru FC qualified for the 2016 AFC Cup final, they went away to Johor Darul Ta'zim of Malaysia and drew 1-1 in the first leg, before beating the 2015 champions 3-1 at home to qualify for the final. In 2015, Istiklol were beaten 4-0 in their first leg away to Al-Kuwait, but then qualified for the final because FIFA suspended the Kuwait Football Association five days ahead of the return leg in Tajikistan.