Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup

Iraq’s Air Force Club celebrated success in the final of the AFC Cup by beating Istiklol from Tajikistan. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2017
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Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup

DUBAI: Iraq’s Air Force Club entered the continental hall of fame on Saturday with their second consecutive AFC Cup title after defeating Tajikistan’s Istiklol 1-0 in the final.
But while the triumph may be a remarkable achievement for the Iraqi side, it also highlights the plight of a competition that continues to live in the shadow of its more glamorous sister: The AFC Champions League.
Poor attendances, a West Asian monopoly and an all-round lack of interest in the competition are just three of the warning signs for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who now clearly need to do something to bring the AFC Cup closer to the level of the AFC Champions League.
The body revamped its competitions at the turn of the century, getting rid of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup and re-branding the Asian Club Championship as the AFC Champions League.
The AFC Cup was born in 2004 as a tier-two competition, similar to the UEFA Europa League. A major difference, however, is that Asian countries generally cannot have representatives in both continental competitions. Instead, the lower-ranked member associations participate in the AFC Cup while top ones such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, UAE and Australia compete in the AFC Champions League.
Since its birth in 2004, teams from the West Asia Zone have dominated the AFC Cup. Of the 14 titles, only two were won by non-Arab teams: Uzbekistan’s Nasaf lifted the 2011 trophy while Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim won the 2015 title.
Even within West Asia, a handful of teams have taken home the lion’s share of titles: Jordanian side Al-Faisaly won back-to-back titles in 2005, 2006 and lost the 2007 final to their compatriot’s Shabab Al-Ordon.
At least one of the two Kuwaiti sides Al-Qadsia and Al-Kuwait was present at the final every single year between 2009 and 2014, and now Air Force Club have made it two titles on the trot.
The competition struggles to bring crowds to the stands. The 20,000 figure recorded in Saturday’s final was the highest attendance since the 2012 final and the third highest in the competition’s history. That says a lot about how bothered fans are by the tournament.
Conflicts and security fears have meant that teams from places like Syria and Iraq were unable to play at home. The venue for the competition’s final is decided by a draw. This year it was held in Tajikistan, but had the draw favored Air Force Club, they would have had to play in Doha, where they played most of their home games this season. Their semi-final clash against Syria’s Al-Wahda in Qatar brought a meagre 306 fans to the stadium, but even that was far from the worst attendance of the season.
Al-Wahda had faced Bahrain’s Al-Hidd in the group stage in their adopted home of Sidon, Lebanon, in front of 23 fans, and their encounter against the would-be champions at the same ground was attended by 10 fans.
But the problem is not just limited to neutral grounds. Many AFC Cup games fail to even capture the attention of the home fans: Oman’s Saham hosted Lebanon’s Nejmeh in Muscat earlier this year with 180 fans in attendance.
So what can the authorities do to kick the competition’s problems into the stands and bring the AFC Cup closer to the level of the AFC Champions League?
Building a link between the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League proper would be a good start; perhaps reinstating the Super Cup in which the champions of the two competitions face-off, and bringing third placed sides from the AFC Champions League group stage down to the AFC Cup can help increase the popularity of the competition.
Introducing slots for lower ranked teams in the higher-ranking leagues to AFC Cup can also boost attendances. A Saudi side on the level of Al-Fateh or Al-Shabab or an Emirati side such as Al-Nasr would make a welcome upgrade to the quality of the competition.
But after the past few years, and this is no blight on Iraq’s Air Force Club’s victory, it’s clear something needs to be done, and fast.


AS IT HAPPENED: Egypt 1-3 Russia - Mohamed Salah consolation as hosts breeze past the Pharaohs

Updated 19 June 2018
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AS IT HAPPENED: Egypt 1-3 Russia - Mohamed Salah consolation as hosts breeze past the Pharaohs

FULL TIME — RUSSIA 3-1 EGYPT: As much as the Egyptains put up a good fight, they were ultimately beaten by the better, more clinical side. There will, of course, be many a 'what if' concerning Salah — what if he'd played against Uruguay? What if he had been at 100 percent fitness? — but while those answers will never been known, what is not in doubt is that the scoreline in Saint Petersburg did not lie. 

10.40PM: Egypt are seeing a lot of the ball in this final period of the match but, as with the previous 160 minutes of the tournament, they are unable to fashion even a decent half-chance. There lack of cutting edge has cost them so far in Russia. 

ANOTHER SALAH STAT

10.32PM: ANOTHER PENALTY FOR EGYPT? Kutepov looks like he's wrestled Mohsen to the ground but the referee waves play on. It is not referred by the VAR committee and time is running out for Egypt. 

SHARPSHOOTER: Salah celebrates after slotting home his penalty. 

10.29PM — GOAL FOR EGYPT 3-1 to RUSSIA: Salah may not have been at his best so far but he makes no mistake from teh spot smashing the ball emphatically into the back of the net. Can that act as a springboard for an unlikley comeback?

10. 28PM — PENALTY FOR EGYPT: Salah is brought down on the edge of the area. The referee initially calls for a free-kick but that is changed to a penalty after a VAR review. Can he score to inject hope into Egypt players and fans?

FORLORN FANS: Egypt fans trying to enjoy what is unfldoing in front of them in Saint Petersburg. 

 

10.17PM - GOAL FOR RUSSIA 3-0: A disastrous two minutes for Salah and Co. Dzyuba finds room on the edge of the area before hitting a great curled shot to give El Shenawy no chance. This is gae over for Egypt and they are on the verge of going out of the tournament. 

10.15PM - GOAL FOR RUSSIA 2-0: What a tournament this man is having, Cheryshev scores his third goal of the World Cup after great work by Fernandes, a former Brazil international, down the right , a well worked goal. And now Egypt's hopes of making the knockout stages are well and truly on the brink. 

HAPPY HOSTS: The Russians celebrate their fortunate opener. 

10.05PM — SALAH SHOT: The Egyptian star finds room on the edge of the area, enough room to shoot with his trusty left boot. It's well blocked and goes for a corner.

10PM — GOAL FOR RUSSIA 1-0:  A nightmare start to the second-half for Egypt. Golovin crossed the ball in but for some reason rather than catch it El Shenawy punched the ball straight into the path of  Zobnin. A terrible shot hits Fathy who can only watch as  the ball squirmed past his past his own keeper from about 12 yards out. Bad luck but partly of Egypt's own making. They have it all to do now. 

FRIENDLY FANS: This is a great photo of Mexican and Colombian supporters lefting an Egypt fan so he can watch his heroes. 

 

 

HALF-TIME: It has been a close first 45 minutes in Saint Petersburg, neither side really showing much quality. Both coaches will be happy with the scoreline, the key thing for Egypt was to keep it tight and not go behind. The task for the second-half is to build on that, but with Salah only showing glimpses of his class it will be difficult. It is clear the Liverpool man is protect his injured shoulder and not making the dashing runs past defenders that we all got used to over the past 10 months. 

9.42PM — STAT ATTACK: It's been a tight first-half so far as these stats show.

 

9.37PM — SALAH SHOT: It has taken time but Salah gets his first shot in. On the edge of the penalty area he fakes to go on to his right before improvising and hitting shot with his left that only narrowly goes wide. Promising signs for Egypt here. 

9.35PM: Elneney illustrates that the Pharaohs are far from a one-man team as he floats a wonderful pass into the dangerzone. Mohsen again gets a head to it, but you cannot help buyt feel the big man has to do better as the ball drops easily into Akinfeev's hands. 

9.33PM: A good period for Egypt, they force the first corner, which they then subsequently wasted by not beating the first defender (criminal!). But a minute later they work a good opportunity for Mohsen at the far post, only good Russian defending prevented the striker from getting a better header in. 

9.30PM — ONE TO WATCH: Golovin is once agains having a good game in the Russia midfield. Elneny and Co need to quieten him down if they are to prevent the hosts creating good chance after good chance. 

9.24PM: Egypt will be happy with the first 25 minutes, having weathered the early Russian onslaught they have come back into the match and, as with the Uruguay match, showing composure on the ball. Can they go up a level from here? 

9.20PM: It's been a bit of a bitty start from both sides as this photo shows...

 

9.14PM: CLOSE! 'Trezeguet' comes so close with a curling effort from the edge of the box... Egypt finding their feet in this game ...

9.12PM: Mohamed Salah still yet to come into the game, but Egypt looking much brighter than in the first minutes...

9.05PM: Russia commanding the early stages and looking likely to score...our man Salah yet to make a considerable impact...

8.55PM: The anthems have been sung - a rousing rendition from the Russians - and we're ready to get this game under way...

8.50PM: And here he is — Salah is out warming up and looking ok, well at least from our vantage point he is...

 

8.40PM: At the risk of stating the obvious, all eyes will be on Salah tonight. In Saint Petersburg, the city of Russian royalty, can he live up to the mantle of Egyptian King? There's little doubting Cuper's side need him to be at or near his best, can his shoulder take the strain, both literally and metaphorically? 

For Russia the lineup is as expected, Cheryshev starts having come of the bench against Saudi Arabia and scored a brilliant brace. 

 

8.30PM: Both lineups are out here they are...

RUSSIA Akinfeev, Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov,  Zobnin, Gazinsky, Samedov, Golovin, Cheryshev, Dzyuba. Subs:  Lunev, Semenov, Kuzyaev, Dzagoev, Smolov, Kudryashov, Granat,  Aleksey Miranchuk, Anton Miranchuk, Erokhin, Smolnikov, Gabulov.

EGYPT El Shenawy, Fathi, Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy, Hamed,  Elneny, Salah, Said, Trezeguet, Mohsen. Subs: El Hadary,  Elmohamady, Gaber, Morsy, Kahraba, Ashraf, Sobhi, Hamdy,  Shikabala, Samir, Warda, Ekramy. 

 

8.20PM: There is little doubt the return of Salah will give the Pharaohs a big boost, just a quick glance at his stats during his record-breaking season at Liverpool will tell you why.. 

 

 

8PM — BIG NEWS: Egypt go into the crunch clash against Russia knowing defeat will all but end their hopes of making it to the second round, but also buoyed by the return of their talisman, Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian ace has been named, as expected, in Hector Cuper’s starting XI to face the hosts in Saint Petersburg having missed the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay on Friday.
It may be expecting too much to expect the 26-year-old to provide the spark so missing from Egypt’s loss to the South Americans — there is still some confusion over just how well his shoulder has recovered since injuring it in the Champions League final — but there is little doubt that for all the side’s calm and poise in possession they lacked a cutting edge and Cuper is doubtless hoping Salah can provide it this evening.
The hosts come into the match relaxed and, thanks to the Salah show, not the center of attention. Their 5-0 opening-day win over Saudi Arabia has both removed doubts about the side’s ability and set them up well for a stab at making the knockout stages.
Can Salah upset their home party? The next few hours will tell.