Bengaluru FC suffered a heartbreaking 0-1 defeat at the hands of Air Force Club of Iraq in the summit clash of the AFC Cup as they failed to become the first Indian football club to win an Asian title in Doha on Sunday.
I-League champions Bengaluru have already become the first Indian to qualify for the final of the AFC Cup, a second tier club competition in Asia, but they were chasing for a bigger glory and unprecedented continental title, but in the end were beaten by a superior side at Qatar Sports Club Stadium on Sunday.
Bengaluru were simply outplayed by Air Force Club, despite a seizable expatriate crowd egging on them at the stadium and lot of support from the sports fraternity at home, as they got very few scoring chances while the Iraqi side had several of them, especially in the second half and the closing stages of the match.
Star striker Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah, who has scored 15 goals in the 11 matches Air Force Club played before Sunday’s fixture, netted the match-winner in the 71st minute to give his side their maiden AFC Cup title and break the Indians’ heart.
This was the first time an Iraqi side won the AFC Cup title after Erbil Club finished runners-up twice in 2012 and 2014.
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Despite the loss and heartbreak, Bengaluru will return home with their heads held high as they set a benchmark for Indian clubs by reaching thus far. Before them, only two clubs — Dempo in 2008 and East Bengal in 2013 — had reached the semifinals of the AFC Cup.
Bengaluru and Air Force Club were locked in a goal-less stalemate at half time with the Iraqi side dominating possession and the Indian club defending their citadel resolutely. But the barrage of attacks from Air Force Club was to bear fruit at some stage and it happened in the 71st minute.
Bengaluru FC head coach Albert Roca made just one change to his team which started against Johor Darul Ta’zim in the semifinals with Lalthuamawia Ralte replacing suspended Amrinder Singh at the goal.
The first half was dominated by the Air Force Club with the Iraqi side having more of the ball possession and Bengaluru playing in their own half. The Iraqi side, playing their maiden AFC Cup final just like Bengaluru, though did not have any clear chance with the Bengaluru back four of John Johnson, Juanan, Rino Anto and Nishu Kumar doing an impressive job to thwart ay Air Force attack.
Bengaluru, on the other hand, looked to attack on the break either from the right through Alwyn George or from the left through captain Sunil Chhetri with Eugeneson Lyngdoh playing at the hole behind C K Vineeth.
Air Force had a half chance in the 22nd minute but Humam Tareq’s long ranger after he saw Bengaluru keeper Ralte well out of his line went wide. The Iraqi side had the best chance of the first half in the 42nd minute but Ralte came to the rescue for his side with a fine save.
Hammadi Ahmad sent a lovely through ball to Amjad Radhi who beat the offside trap but his attempted square pass towards Emad Majeed in the box was thwarted by Ralte who palms it out for a corner.
Bengaluru had just one clear look at the Air Force in the first session in the 30th minute. Alwyn George sent a lovely teasing cross from the right and Lyngdoh had a clean header but it went wide.
The trend continued in the second half with Air Force Club doing most of the attacking while Bengaluru looking for counter attacks.
Amjad Radhi was in the thick of things again and he had a fine chance to put Air Force Club ahead in the 51st minute. Saad Natiq sent in a ball that perfectly fell on Radhi who, however, shot over from a close range after getting the better of Rino Anto.
Bengaluru responded three minutes later with Chhetri doing the spadework as he found himself with plenty of space down the left. The Bengaluru captain got past Samal Saeed with ease and then cut back for Eugeneson Lyngdoh into the box. But Lyngdoh’s shot was blocked in front of goal by skipper Air Force defender.
With an hour gone in the match, Bengaluru coach Roca made a double substitution in the 64th minute with Udanta Singh and Seiminlen Doungel coming in for Alwyn George and Nishu Kumar respectively.
But after a barrage of attacks, Air Force Club finally got the goal with the tournament’s highest scorer Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah finding the winning goal. Amjad Radhi had the ball just outside the Bengaluru box and he took in his stride both Watson and Johnson with ease. He then took Ralte out of his line and squared the ball for Hammadi Ahmed to just poked it into the open net.
The runner-up finish in AFC Cup in their third year of inception was a remarkable achievement for Bengaluru, owned by JSW Steel. Bengaluru won the 2013-14 I-League title in their debut appearance. They finished second in 2014-15 season and then reclaimed the title this year. In between, they won the Federation Cup in 2015.
They had beaten defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia in the semifinals on 4-2 aggregate in October