The colorful 2017 AFC Cup journey of Ceres-Negros may just have 90 minutes left in it, after they succumbed to a 4-0 defeat to ruthless FC Istiklol of Tajikistan in the first leg of the tournament’s Inter-Zonal Semifinal, held on Wednesday evening at the Respublikanskiy Stadion im M.V. Frunze in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Ceres-Negros initially appeared to have settled quickly in Dushanbe, as they had more of the possession in the first 15 minutes of play. However the Negrenses weren’t able to test the hosts’ defense too much, as lack of fluidity in the attacking third saw sequences break down too often for their liking.
Down the other side of the pitch, Istiklol had a few fair opportunities to break the deadlock to their favor. The Tajikistan champions wanted to make their home advantage count as early as possible, blasting three shots over the frame. Manuchekhr Dzhalilov provided the closest of them in the 17th minute, gaining space to shoot from a well-worked set piece only to squander it off the mark.
They may have not taken the lead at that point but the latest developments provided a sense of encouragement not just to the Istiklol players, but also to the fans in attendance. Growing in confidence, the home team turned the momentum around and got themselves a penalty in the 24th minute.
History does indeed repeat itself, and Ceres-Negros hadn’t learned enough to change their fortunes. For the third consecutive away game in the AFC Cup, they had given away a penalty to their opponents. This time it was Kota Kawase who was at fault. The Japanese defender launched a late challenge on Dmitri Barkov inside the penalty area. Carli de Murga did jis best to unsettle Akhmat Nazarov, but the penalty taker shrugged it off as he blasted it well past Roland Müller. Just like that and Ceres find themselves trailing yet again in their travels.
The hosts attempted to build from the early goal, well aware of the dangers Ceres-Negros pose away from home. Only FELDA United managed to shutout Risto Vidakovic’s men whenever they were away from home in this season’s AFC Cup with the away goals in ties against Johor Darul Takzim and Home United also bailing Ceres-Negros from defeats suffered away from the Panaad Stadium.
For the remainder of the first period, Istiklol looked favourites to find the second goal of the game as Ceres-Negros struggled to find their footing in the tie. The hosts did not let the half end without padding their slender lead. In first half added time, Romish Dzhalilov capped off a swift attacking move that put the Filipinos in a difficult position entering the second half. Ceres may just have to scale a mountain similar to the Pamirs in order to salvage a result for Negros.
Fortunately for Ceres-Negros, there were still 45 minutes to pull at least a goal back and do more of the damage in their own backyard. They got off to a good start by playing more proactively on the attack, imposing themselves against a team that has yet to concede a 2017 AFC Cup goal in Dushanbe. The men in yellow were getting deeper into the Istiklol half more frequently than they had early on, but still had the telling final touch lacking in their game.
Just as Ceres-Negros were finding their rhythm offensively, a huge blow hit them midway in the closing half. M. Dzhalilov, the highly-rated Istiqlol talisman who had scuffed an earlier attempt, whipped a wonderful strike to make it a comfortable 3-0 advantage for the home side. Still without a decent shot to test Istiklol keeper Nikola Stosić, the Philippine side knew they were in all kinds of trouble now, especially if they failed to score before leaving the Tajikistan capital.
As time slowly faded away, the trailing side had to work hard on both ends of the field, as they aimed to win the rest of the match at 3-0 down. Having a hard time breaking the Central Asians down, Ceres were even made to labor defensively as Istiklol didn’t show any signs of taking their feet off the pedal.
One man capable of dealing more damage to the Filipinos was M. Dzhalilov. The 26-year-old nearly extended the lead 11 minutes before time when he was left unmarked inside the box. Unfortunately for the Tajikistan international, he sent it uncharacteristically wide.
It wouldn’t be the last time he got a sniff of goal, as he buried a chance that may perhaps be enough for Istiklol to book their place in the inter-zonal final. Manuchekhr pounced on poor Ceres defending to finish with ease from close range. It certainly underlined Istiklol’s intentions to win the AFC Cup for the first time as they put on a magnificent performance against Southeast Asia’s finest.
Down but not out just yet, Ceres-Negros can still find their way to the inter-zonal final but they need to overhaul the huge 4-0 aggregate deficit. It’s also worth noting that an Istiklol away goal would make things tougher for the Negrenses, who will host their opponents from Tajikistan in the second leg of their tie on September 12.
If they are to pull off a miracle of biblical proportions, doing it in front of a passionate crowd back home may just well be the place to do it.