TEAM NAME: FC Istiklol
HOME GROUND (AFC Cup): Hisor Central Stadium, Hisor
LEAGUE: Tajik League
NICKNAME: The Crowns
Head Coach: Mukhsin Mukhmadiev (Tajikistan/Russia)
Last season achievements: Champions of Tajik League, Winners of Tajik Cup
Latest match result: Won; FC Panjsher 0-5 FC Istiklol (18 September 2017, Tajik League)
Turning out to be quite the Central Asian powerhouse in the last few years, FC Istiklol was only formed as recently as in 2007. Gaining promotion to the top-tier in their debut campaign, the Dushanbe-based side has been rattling Tajik record books for the last eight years, having won six league titles and as many cups.
2010 was the breakthrough year for Istiklol, doing the domestic double as well as lifting the Tajik Super Cup, guaranteeing passage into the now-defunct AFC President's Cup - their first taste of continental football the following season.
Yet again, the capital-based side took only a couple of seasons to see themselves crowned champions of the AFC President's Cup in 2012, defeating Palestinian side Markaz Shabab Al-Am'ari in the final on home soil.
After a two-year lull, another double in 2014 booked Istiklol a place in the 2015 AFC Cup. The Reds took to Asian club football's second-tier competition like fish to water in their debut season itself. Qualifying to the grand finale in emphatic fashion, another win at their home stadium was not to be as Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim lifted the crown after a 1-0 scoreline on a chilly night in Dushanbe.
FC Isitklol have already secured the 2017 Tajik League, their sixth, with five games to spare after their 5-0 spanking of FC Panjsher away from home the previous weekend. They are now just one title away from equalling the national record set by Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda.
In a more daunting statistic, Istiklol have been unbeaten in 28 official games for a year now, in all competitions. Their last defeat came away at FK Ravshan, losing 2-1 in the 2016 Tajik League on 25 September 2016.
FC Istiklol have been somewhat the trendsetters when it comes to power-packed debut seasons in Asian club competitions. Making their continental bow in the 2011 AFC President's Cup, they romped through to the final round but failed to reach the final after two back-to-back defeats in Taiwan.
They arrived again the following season and how! An undefeated run of five games saw them lift the 2012 AFC President's Cup in front of their home support.
The Crowns had to wait for two seasons until they re-emerged in their debut AFC Cup campaign in 2015. Battling against the odds, Istiklol did make it to the final, beating clubs like Al Kuwait and Al Wahda along the way but a fairytale was not to be thanks to Malaysia's Johor.
Second season syndrome caught on as Istiklol did not manage even a single win and were ousted in the first round after finishing bottom of their group.
In the current 2017 edition, Istiklol were declared Central Asian winners after they topped the group with five wins and a draw. Pitted against Philippines' Ceres Negros in the Inter-zone play-off semi-finals, a 4-0 thrashing at home followed up with a 1-1 result in the archipelago nation ensured a date with Bengaluru FC in the race to reach the final.
Mukhsin Mukhamadiev has a problem of plenty when it comes to team selection at least for the first leg at home. Three key players in defender Artem Baranovskyi and midfielders David Mawutor and Amirbek Juraboev are suspended after continuous yellow cards in the last tie.
Oibek Abdugaffarov, Muhammadjoni Hasan and Nuriddin Davronov are expected to be summoned into the playing XI as Mukhamadiev goes for his favoured flat 4-4-2 formation.
|Players To Watch Out For|
Manuchekhr Dzhalilov : Seven goals in the campaign already, the 26-year-old will be the vital threat Bengaluru FC defenders have to watch out for. The Tajik national is a product of former Russian champions Lokomotiv Moscow's youth academy and is in fine goalscoring form for both club and country, having netted 27 times in 2017.
Dmitry Barkov: Impressing on a trial in a pre-season friendly, Istiklol did not wait much to sign him up and the Finland-born Russian has proved to be a good catch. Seven goals in total this season and the chief architect behind most of Dzhalilov's goals, the 25-year-old is a key component in Mukhamadiev's XI.
GOALKEEPERS: 1. Nikola Stosic, 13. Mehvar Sulaymonov, 35. Kurbonali Bobev;
DEFENDERS: 2. Siyovush Asrorov, 3. Davlatmir Tabrezi, 5. Artem Baranovskyi, 6. Oibek Abdugaffarov, 19. Akhtam Nazarov, 27. Oleksandr Stetsenko;
MIDFIELDERS: 4. David Mawutor, 8. Nuriddin Davronov, 11. Muhammadjoni Hasan, 18. Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev, 20. Amirbek Juraboev, 21. Romish Dzalilov, 23. Ehson Panjshanbe, 70. Shakhrom Sulaimonov;
FORWARDS: 9. Jahongir Aliev, 10. Dmitry Barkov, 17. Dilshod Vasiev, 63. Manuchekhr Dzhalilov.
Follow Swapnaneel Parasar on Twitter - @Swapyo