It all comes down to this. Two teams will fight in Doha for the opportunity to be crowned AFC Cup champion on Saturday, but only one side will see their dream come to reality, while the other will have to swallow the bitter pill of losing.
JSW Bengaluru FC and Air Force Club have already made history as it is the first time both clubs have reached the final of the competition. Futhermore, Bengaluru became the first Indian team to achieve this feat, while Air Force Club are the third Iraqi side to feature in the final, but they can become the first club from their country to win the tournament.
First, let’s take a quick look at Bengaluru’s road to the final. The I-League side had mixed results in the group stage as they won three and lost three games before skirting past Hong Kong-based club Kitchee 3-2 in the round of 16.
After seeing off Tampines Rovers 1-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, Bengaluru faced their biggest challenge in the semi-finals as they took on defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim, but were able to produce a stunning upset as they triumphed 4-1 on aggregate.
Bengaluru coach Albert Roca, who took over from Ashley Westwood in July, is confident that his side can get the job done, but admitted that beating Air Force Club will be no easy feat.
“All the players in my team know they have good qualities and I am sure they will help us win the title,” he said. “Our style of preparation is always in tactical aspects and, tactically, the team is ready for this game.
“Iraq always has produced very good teams, very strong physically. And now it seems this team has scored a lot of goals, and their attack is very strong, so we have to be prepared for that.”
Bengaluru will be without the services of goalkeeper Amrinder Singh for the match as he is suspended, meaning that Lalthuammawia Ralte will be tasked with a huge challenge on Saturday.
Ralte has only featured in the competition on three occasions, all of which came in the group stage, but nonetheless, Roca is backing the 23-year-old to do the team proud.
“We have to trust in Mawia, who is a very good goalkeeper as well,” he said.
As for Air Force Club, it has been a dream debut journey thus far as they won five games and lost one in the group stage before taking down Al Wehdat 2-1 in the round of 16.
The Iraq-based club proceeded to crush Al Jaish 5-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and survived a close encounter with Al Ahed in the semi-finals, where they won 4-3 on aggregate.
Air Force Club, coach Basim Qasim revealed that his side’s preparations for the final have gone well, and added that they have been in superb form outside of the AFC Cup as well as they began the Iraqi Premier League with two wins in two matches.
“Our preparations have been good so far,” he said. “We won 3-1 in our last domestic league match and we were able to rest some players ahead of the AFC Cup final. We hope and wish that this will help us be crowned AFC Cup champions.
“We have a good idea on Bengaluru’s strengths and weaknesses, in fact we feel we know the Indian club very well. It is important for us to win the AFC Cup so we need make sure we raise all aspects of our game and avoid making any mistakes.”