The group stage of 2016 AFC Cup is done and dusted, and the action in the East Zone provided plenty of interesting points.
It was an intriguing opening to the competition, with a number of teams springing surprises, while others were left to rue what might have been.
Selangor’s gamble doesn’t pay off
A new coach and a host of new signings heralded nothing but an early exit for Selangor. Head coach Zainal Abidin Hassan arrived from Pahang – and brought a number of his international players with him, while Patrick Wleh joined on loan from PKNS. Add these reinforcements to a Malaysia Cup-winning squad and one would have anticipated that Selangor would have eased into the last 16. Instead, they already have only league glory (where they’re already six points off the pace) to play for after seeing their cup challenges dwindle.
The Red Giants hierarchy may now be wondering why they decided to dispose of Mehmet Durakovic, with their desire to eclipse rivals Johor Darul Ta’zim who won the AFC Cup and Malaysia Super League in 2015, resulting in changes that on reflection may have been misguided.
Safiq shows his class
No doubt with one eye on this weekend’s FA Cup final against PKNS, reigning AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta’zim fielded a largely second-string team in their dead rubber clash against Bengaluru FC on Wednesday. Safiq Rahim was one of those relegated to the replacements bench, but such as been the midfielder’s form thus far in the competition that he could not be kept out of the action, bagging a goal after coming on as a second-half substitute.
The 28-year-old has been in devastating form for JDT, banging in seven goals in six group games – a fantastic return for a midfielder. But it’s not only goals that the JDT skipper has contributed, he’s been the driving force behind the Johor outfit’s unbeaten run in the tournament.
JDT were one of only three teams to emerge from the group stage undefeated, and the only team to win six from six. It’s a whole new ball game when clubs from the East and West Zones meet, but at present Mario Gomez’s side look hard to beat, and will remain that way – particularly if Safiq continues to excel.
Pennant comes good at the right time
Given Tampines Rovers well-documented financial difficulties, the Singapore outfit needed a place in the knockout phase, not just for the financial bonus that comes with it, but also to justify their pre-season spending – specifically the signing of Jermaine Pennant.
Needing a win in their final match against Selangor on Tuesday, V Sundramoorthy’s side stepped up to the plate and got the job done, with Pennant a leading figure in their victory. The former Liverpool winger stood up to be counted when his team really needed him, with his interplay with striker Billy Mehmet (who was later sent off), one of the keys to their success.
Tampines are the first Singaporean club to make it to the knockout stage since Home United did so in 2012, and they’ll need more of the same from Pennant if they’re to make it through their last-16 tie with Mohun Bagan.
Never give up: The story of South China
After beginning their AFC Cup campaign with three consecutive defeats (in which they conceded eight goals), South China looked dead and buried. However, the Hong Kong outfit somehow managed to turn their fortunes around and book their spot in the last 16, a feat achieved by beating the previously undefeated Mohun Bagan on Wednesday.
Coach Ricardo Rambo has asserted that he always believed his side had what it takes to qualify, and they demonstrated that belief with three wins in a row.
South China’s resurrection should stand as a reminder to other clubs that it’s never over until it’s well and truly over.
Ceres La Salle and Kaya FC: Doing it for the Philippines
For the first time in the AFC Cup’s history two teams from the Philippines have qualified for the knockout stages of the competition. The rise of Filipino football has been well documented, and the success of Kaya and Ceres this season has only served to underline this.
Ceres were not expected to progress from a group that included Tampines Rovers and Selangor, but not only did they qualify, but they did so as group winners and with a game in hand. Their reward is a last-16 tie with South China which will be viewed as very much a surmountable task.
Kaya will have a much tougher time of it against JDT, but you can bet that if Joel Villarino’s side do go down, it won’t be without a fight.