The group stages of Asia’s secondary club football tournament - the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup 2017 - is all set to commence on 20th February, along with several pending playoffs to determine the final 34 teams which will be battling it out for the coveted trophy.
There is a slight twist to the AFC Cup's format this time around. Winners from Group A, B and C (West Zone) and the best second-placed team will play the zonal play-offs for West Zone. They will gain direct entry to the AFC Cup 2017 final.
The other finalist will be determined through an Inter-Zone play-off between the winners of the ASEAN, Central, South and East Zones. ASEAN Zone (Groups F,G & H) also follows the same pattern (as West) and determines a zonal winner. The ASEAN winner will then take part in a play-off with the winner of the Central Asia Zone (Group D), the winner of the South Asia Zone (Group E), the winner of the East Asia Zone (Group I).
That particular winner will compete with the West Zone winner for the title.
Groups D, E and I are not in action until March 14th.
First up, let us take a glance at the two play-off games which takes place on 21st February.
SOUTH ZONE PLAYOFF
Club Valencia vs Mohun Bagan: Club Valencia, who won a spot in the preliminary round qualifiers of the AFC Cup after winning the Maldives FA Cup last season, host I-League runners-up Mohun Bagan in the first of the two-legged play-off for an entry to the group stages. The Sunrisers downed Bhutan’s Thimphu City in the previous round. They last played in the group stages in 2009 and Hamdhaan Ibrahim will be a key player for them.
Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, lost out to Tampines Rovers in the round of 16 last year and will be looking to better that record. First up, they have to negotiate a tough tie against the side from Maldives, which will not be easy. The Mariners defeated Colombo FC in the previous round where Haitian winger Sony Norde and Scotsman Darryl Duffy were their trump cards. However, what shall concern them is the absence of Norde due to injury and the fact that coach Sanjoy Sen hasn't travelled due to personal reasons.
Venue: National Stadium, Male
Kick-off: February 21, 16.00 UTC+5
Second Leg: February 28
CENTRAL ZONE PLAYOFF
Dordoi FC vs FC Hosilot: Kyrgyzstan-based Dordoi FC finished second in the Shoro Top Liga and won the Kyrgyz President’s Cup. Then they overcame the challenge of Turkmenistan’s Balkan FC 3-2 on aggregate in the previous qualification round. They have never reached the group stages of the AFC Cup in their 20-year history and to do that against Hosilot, they will hope that Uzbek forward Alisher Azizov and Russian defender Igor Potapov raise their games.
FC Hosilot, based in Tajikistan, are appearing in the play-off stage of the AFC Cup for the very first time in their history after finishing as runners-up in the Tajik league. They got past Afghan outfit Shaheen Asmayee in the previous round and to reach a historic group stage, they need to do well in the first leg in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Venue: Akhmatbek Suyinbaev Stadium, Osh
Kick-off: February 21, 15.00 UTC+6
Second Leg: February 28
GROUP A (WEST ZONE)
The first round of fixtures in Group A will see Iraq’s Al Zawraa Club host Al Suwaiq from Oman while Syria’s Al Jaish take on Jordanian side Al Ahli.
Al Jaish vs Al Ahli: Syrian champions Al Jaish, who are based in Damascus, will want nothing but a win against Jordan’s Al Ahli as they look to regain the throne they last won in 2004. They were beaten last year in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Air Force Club from Iraq and this time, starting off on a good note is paramount. Russian defender Basel Abdoulfattakh is their key man in defence.
On the other hand, the Jordan FA Cup winners Al Ahli are making their first ever appearance in the AFC Cup group stages and are minnows when compared to their Syrian opponents. Liberian international midfielder Marcus Macauley is expected to be their driving force.
Venue: Al Khor SC Stadium, Doha
Kick-off: February 20, 16.00 UTC+3
Al Zawraa vs Al Suwaiq: The second group A fixture sees Iraqi champions Al Zawraa host Oman’s Al Suwaiq who had to negotiate a tough play-off against Shabab Al Khalil which finished 4-3 to reach the group stages.
This is Al Zawraa’s third AFC Cup appearance, the last one coming in 2012, and 2012 Asian Young Footballer of the Year Mohannad Abdul-Raheem’s marksmanship will be vital to their ambitions. Omanian side Al Suwaiq are returning to the AFC Cup after a two-year break, when they were eliminated in the group stages. The Oman Professional League runners-up have a tough job on their hands.
Venue: Grand Hamad Stadium, Doha
Kick-off: February 20, 18.00 UTC+3
GROUP B (WEST ZONE)
Safa SC from Lebanon take on Iraq’s Air Force Club in the first round of fixtures in the group while Bahrain side Al Hidd are up against Syria’s Al Wahda.
Safa SC vs Air Force Club: Safa SC are making their first appearance since 2014 in the AFC Cup and the 2008 runners up are up against it with the defending champions visiting them. The Lebanese champions will need to play out of their skins to take something against their much-fancied opponents.
Air Force Club (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya) won their first ever AFC Cup last year where they defeated Bengaluru FC and look primed to start their title defence on a good note, especially with Group B looking like it will be tightly contested. Iranian striker Hammadi Ahmed, who notched 16 goals for the Iraqi side, will be their trump card yet again.
Venue: Saida Municipal Stadium, Saida
Kick-off: February 20, 14.30 UTC+2
Al Hidd vs Al Wahda: Bahrain Premier League champions Al Hidd crashed out last time around in the group stages and they are up against 2004 finalist Al Wahda first up. The Bahrain side have a tough challenge on their hands and will need to start with a win in a what is a tough group.
Al Wahda, one of the oldest clubs in Syria, reached the round of 16 last year where they were soundly beaten by Lebanon’s Al Ahed club. Striker Raja Rafe, who top scored in the domestic league last season, will be their main man. Their defence, which helped them go 23 games unbeaten in the league, is also one of their strengths.
Venue: Bahrain National Stadium, Manama
Kick-off: February 20, 18.15 UTC+3
GROUP C (WEST ZONE)
Oman’s Saham Club welcome Bahrain’s Muharraq club while Jordan’s Al Wehdat take on Nejmeh SC in the Group C fixtures.
Saham Club vs Al Muharraq Club: Saham, from Oman, qualified to the group stages after winning the Sultan Qaboos cup last year. Moreover, they are only making their second appearance at this stage of the AFC Cup but will hope to get their campaign off to a good start against the seasoned campaigners that is Al Muharrraq Club.
The Bahrain-based team won the title back in 2008 and were the runners-up in 2006 while last year, they were ousted in the quarterfinals by Al Ahed from Lebanon. Coached by Croatian manager Rodion Gacanin, they are one of the usual suspects to make it past the group stages.
Venue: Seeb Sports Complex, Muscat
Kick-off: February 21, 19.00 UTC+4
Al Wehdat vs Nejmeh SC: Jordanian champions Al Wehdat find themselves in the AFC Cup after losing the AFC Champions League play-off and will be determined to progress far in the secondary competition. The Green Giants lost out to eventual champions Air Force Club last time in the round of 16. They will hope that their Brazilian striker Francisco Wagsley and Croatian defender Sebastijan Antic come up trumps on the night against the Nejmeh SC.
Lebanese FA Cup winners Nejmeh SC are up against it in the first game of the group against Al Wehdat but they are no newcomers to the tournament, having finished as the runners-up in 2005 and reached the semifinals in 2006 and 2007. They will hope to channel some of those memories this year.
Venue: King Abdullah II International Stadium, Amman
Kick-off: February 21, 18.00 UTC+2
GROUP F (ASEAN ZONE)
The initial rounds of fixtures in Group F see Philippine side Global FC host on Myanmar’s Magwe FC. In the other fixture, Malaysian team Johor Darul Ta’zim welcome Cambodia’s Beoungket Angkor FC.
Global FC vs Magwe FC: The Philippine champions are making their second appearance in the AFC Cup after crashing out of the group stages in 2015. They will be hoping to start off on a good note against Magwe FC and Brazilian defender Rafael Dumas, who had turned out Indian Super League (ISL) franchise FC Goa previously, has been roped in to shore up their defence.
Magwe FC won a maiden AFC Cup spot after winning the General Aung San shield last year, which was the club’s first major honour. The Oil Landers are in uncharted territory and have already surpassed expectations by making it this far.
Venue: Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, Manila
Kickoff: February 21, 17:00 GMT+5
Johor Darul Ta’zim vs Beoungket Angkor FC: Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim will be hoping to put their agonising semifinal defeat to India’s Bengaluru FC last year to bed when they kickstart a fresh AFC Cup campaign. The 2015 winners initially qualified to the preliminary stages of the AFC Champions League but lost the playoff against Gamba Osaka. The Southern Tigers will bank on Argentine recruits Gabriel Guerra and Brian Ferreira coming good against their Cambodian opponents.
The Cambodian champions Beoungket Angkor are making their debut AFC Cup appearance and have been thrown into the deep end straight away against Johor. The Blue Dragons from Phnom Penh will need to summon some serious resolve to get at least a point in Malaysia.
Venue: Stadium Tan Sri Dato' Haji Yunos, Johor Baru
Kickoff: February 21, 18:15 GMT+5
GROUP G (ASEAN ZONE)
In the first round of fixtures in this group, Vietnam’s Hanoi FC take on Philippine side Ceres Negros FC while Singapore’s Tampines Rovers host Felda United of Malaysia.
Hanoi FC vs Ceres Negros: Vietnamese champions Hanoi are making only their third AFC Cup appearance. The last time was in 2014 when they managed to reach the quarterfinals but they are up against Philippine League runners-up Ceres Negros FC.
Ceres, on the other hand, managed to reach the round of 16 last year and will be hoping to at least equal that result this time around. The Busmen have signed several key players for the AFC Cup campaign this year with Japanese defender Kota Kawase and Spanish striker Fernando Ortega the notable ones. The Philippine side are definitely the favourites for this clash.
Venue: My Dinh Stadium, Hanoi
Kickoff: February 21, 16:30 GMT+5
Tampines Rovers vs Felda United: Tampines Rovers are a regular fixture in the AFC Cup and managed to reach the quarterfinals last season where they were beaten by Bengaluru FC. The Stags find themselves in the same group as Ceres Negros again and will be keen to start with a win against Felda United before taking on their rivals. Croatian forward Ivan Dzoni should be the man to watch from the Singapore side.
Malaysian league runners up Felda United are making their first ever appearance in the AFC Cup this time around. They have an Argentine strike pairing with on-loan forward Lucas Cano clicking well up top. Still, The Fighters have a daunting task against the seasoned Tampines Rovers.
Venue: Jalan Besar Stadium, Singapore
Kickoff: February 21, 17:00 GMT+5
GROUP H (ASEAN ZONE)
Group H, which consists of three teams will see Myanmar’s Yadanarbon FC host Singapore’s Home United FC in the first match day while Vietnam’s Than Quang Ninh are not in action until 8th March 2017.
Yadanarbon FC vs Home United FC: The Myanmar champions Yadanarbon are making their second appearance in the AFC Cup and are up against Singapore club Home United FC. In their last appearance in 2015, Yadanarbon crashed out of the group stages and are very much the underdogs to prevail over Home United FC.
Home United FC are returning to the AFC Cup after three years after finishing fourth on the S-League table. But since champions Albirex Niigata and third placed Brunei DPMM are not eligible for AFC competitions, Home United bagged a return to the competition. Possessing the likes of Croatian forward Stipe Plazibat and Korean midfielder Song Ui-young, they look primed for a good campaign.
Venue: Mandalar Thiri Stadium, Mandalay
Kickoff: February 22, 16:00 GMT+5