Preview: Ahli Al-Khaleel v. Khujand (2016 AFC Cup)
|Ahli Al-Khaleel stars Jonathan Cantillana (L) & Abdallah Jaber|
What: 2016 AFC Cup qualifying Playoff
Where: Dora International Stadium, Hebron, Palestine
When: February 9th, 2016
Kickoff: 1600 Local
Ahli Al-Khaleel will attempt to double the amount of Palestinian teams in the AFC Cup (the Asian equivalent of the Europa League) tournament tomorrow when they take of Khujand of Tajikistan. Unlike most playoffs, this game is a one off with no return fixture. Hosting rights are given to the team determined to be the higher seed by the AFC organizing committee.
More after the jump...
This match represent the first foray into continental football in the 21st Century. Khujand qualified for the tournament by finishing runners up to perennial Tajik champions Istiklol. Ahli Al-Khaleel was buoyed by the arrival of Stefano Cusin last winter that saw an almost immediate uptick in fortunes. Their run ended with a penalty shootout win over Balata to secure the Palestine Cup. Unlike previous years however they had to play an additional match just to get a taste of continental football.
Ahli Al-Khaleel faced Ittihad Shujaiyah in a tense two legged affair and a late Ahmad Maher goal in the return fixture in Dora was enough to send The Reds through, 2-1, on aggregate.
Preseason Preparation & Form
Since then, Ahli Al-Khalil has lost the services of Stefano Cusin but has strengthened the team in key areas by splashing the cash in the transfer market. New boss Ibrahim Mansour will also be able to lean on the preseason camp conducted in Chile which should have the players sharper and more focussed than previous Palestinian entrants at this stage.
Defensively, Ahli Al-Khaleel are stingy giving up a mere twelve goals over 13 games this season. That fact shouldn't come as a surprise with national team players in the shape of Abdallah Jaber, Ahmad Harbi, Mahmoud Dayfallah and goalkeeper Azmi Shweiki marshaling the defence.
On the opposite end of the pitch, the team has struggled with the absence of Fadi Zidan (an AFC Cup vet from his time with Taraji Wadi Al-Nes last year) notching a meager 13 goals this season.
For Khujand, they will be playing their first competitive fixture since November 22nd- a 7-1 walloping at the hands of Istiklol FC. Ironically, Istiklol's fine performance in last year's AFC Cup (winning their group en route to an improbable finals appearance) opened the door for a second Tajik club to participate in the competition this year with the Tajik league coefficient gaining a healthy boost in the process.
Istiklol aside, Tajik clubs have not fared well in Asian competition two other teams- Regar TadAZ, & Ravshan Kulob- are a combined 1-2-16. With the lone win the result of a home playoff between Ravshan Kulob and Yemeni side Al-Yarmuk in 2014.
Previous Palestinian Participations
Palestine have participated in the AFC Cup since 2014 when Shabab Al-Dhahrieh was permitted to enter in the playoff round agains FK Aly Osh of Kyrgyzstan. The Oryxes hosted the game at the site of tomorrow's encounter and lost 8-7 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
The following year, Taraji Wadi Al-Nes entered the group stage automatically and performed honorably securing six points while maintaining an undefeated record (1-2-0) on home soil against Al-Hidd (BAH), Al-Quwwa Al-Jawiya (IRQ), and Al-Jazeera (JOR).
Hilal Al-Quds were entered into the playoff and nearly upset eventual quarterfinalists Al-Jaish (SYR) but fell on penalties after a 1-1 draw yet again.
Keys to the Game
If Ahli Al-Khalil are to progress to the group stage they will need to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and push their home field advantage against an opponent most likely short of match fitness.
Should Ahli Al-Khaleel advance, this would be the group that would await them: