I-League champions Bengaluru FC have a chance to become the first Indian club to win a continental title when they take on Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club) in the AFC Cup 2016 final on Saturday evening.
Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, or Air Force Club, are also making their first-ever AFC Cup final appearance in what is the eighth time an Iraqi club will have played the final of a major club competition. However, recent history suggests that Iraqi clubs tend to underperform in finals, going by Erbil SC’s two AFC Cup final losses in 2012 and 2014.
Both the teams have a number of dangerous players who could make the difference at the 15,000-capacity Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Saturday, not least the top scorers of the two sides: Sunil Chhetri and Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah. Here is a look at the top players from both teams who could help shape the result of the final.
Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru FC)
The Bengaluru captain Chhetri is his side’s top scorer in the AFC Cup 2016, and his two goals against Johor Darul Takzim in the semi-final second leg made the difference for the Blues. Chhetri has scored five goals during Bengaluru’s run to the final, and his team-mates will once again look up to his prowess in front of goal to steer them to unprecedented glory.
Chhetri has led Bengaluru from the front all throughout the campaign, and his experience of playing in Doha during the 2011 AFC Asian Cup with the Indian national team should stand him in good stead for the title clash. The 32-year-old plays a free role for his side, tucking inside from the left channel to find space in the central areas, and will be a particular threat for Air Force Club.
But it won’t be just Chhetri who has to play at his best for Bengaluru to win the final. As manager Albert Roca emphasised: “We play as a team and Sunil is the captain of that team. It’s going to take everyone to chip in with their best performances if we are to give ourselves a chance in the final." Chhetri’s contribution will only be one part of what Bengaluru go on to do in the final.
Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah (Air Force Club)
While Chhetri’s goals for Bengaluru have been priceless, Hammadi is on a frighteningly hot streak for Air Force Club, having scored 15 goals in 10 appearances in the competition this season. The 27-year-old’s goalscoring record in the AFC Cup 2016 is impressive considering the next highest scorer in the competition has managed only eight goals, and the entire Bengaluru side have scored just 17 goals, only two more than Hammadi.
“The main factor why there is such a big gap between me and the next highest scorer in this year’s competition – it is because my teammates have worked so well with me,” the Iraq international credited his team-mates for their work behind him, but his goals tally is enough to strike fear in the hearts of opponents. His poacher’s quality of being able pick the right spaces inside the penalty area and finishing par excellence mark him out as Air Force Club’s key man.
Known to be a physically-imposing side, Air Force Club have scored goals for fun in their run to the AFC Cup 2016 final. They have netted 26 goals in the competition thus far, the second highest tally in the AFC Cup 2016, and more than half of them have come from Hammadi. But Bengaluru will take confidence from the fact that they knocked out top scorers Johor in the semi-finals, and stopping another free-scoring team won’t be beyond the Blues.
Lalthuammawia Ralte (Bengaluru)
One area of concern for Bengaluru will be the unavailability of their first-choice goalkeeper Amrinder Singh through an accumulated cards suspension. The 23-year-old has played every minute under Roca but his absence leaves reserve keeper Ralte to keep out Air Force Club’s superlative attack in the final.
Ralte played three group stage games this season conceding six goals, and failed to keep a clean sheet. Despite that, the 22-year-old is unfazed by the challenge awaiting him, and has vowed to give his best for his team: “The team needs me to be at my best at this crucial moment and I will give my best.”
A lot of Bengaluru’s hopes rests on how Ralte manages to handle the pressure of the final, which is the biggest match of his young career thus far. Much as it is an uphill challenge, a fine performance on one of the grandest stages of Asian football will serve to highlight the promise and potential of the young Indian goalkeeper.
Alvaro Rubio (Bengaluru)
“The other team [Air Force Club] can be very physical. But if they have to run behind the ball and you play the ball faster, then it doesn’t become a problem,” Bengaluru’s assistant manager Carles Cuadrat seemed to have given away an idea of his team’s plan for the final, and that plan clearly revolves around the cultured midfield orchestrator, Alvaro Rubio.
One of Roca’s first signings at Bengaluru, the 37-year-old Rubio has been an ever-present in the Blues’ starting eleven since arriving in India. And it is his presence that allows his team to play the short passing, positional game to progress the ball to the flanks that has been very evident under Roca.
With Cameron Watson sitting alongside him in a midfield two, Rubio often dictates play for his side, and his experience in the more accomplished Spanish leagues could be handy in the final for Bengaluru.
Humam Tareq (Air Force Club)
Like Amrinder for Bengaluru, attacking midfielder Bashar Resan will miss the final for Air Force Club after getting sent off in the semi-final second leg at Al Ahed. Resan, his club’s second highest scorer in the AFC Cup 2016 behind Hammadi, is a significant miss considering what he brings into the side. But Resan’s suspension offers the opportunity for another young midfielder, Humam Tareq, to step up and hog the limelight.
The 20-year-old Humam is one of the best young Iraqi talents, having been the youngest ever Iraq international when he made his debut for the Lions of Mesopotamia in 2012 aged just 16. He has made eight starts this season in the AFC Cup, but hasn’t had the desired end product like Resan.
Last season, Humam’s goal in the final of the Iraq FA Cup handed Air Force Club their fourth cup title, and also showed the midfielder’s knack for rising to the occasion when it comes to a final. Alongside Hammadi, and in Resan’s absence, Humam looks to be one of Air Force Club’s chief threats in attack.
Keeping Hammadi, as well as Humam, in check could be key to Bengaluru’s fortunes in the final. With contrasting styles of play that could make for an exciting battle, both the teams have done extremely well to make it into the final, helped on the way by moments of brilliance from influential individuals.
However, more than a particular player, it is the collective performance that wins the war, and whichever team is greater than the sum of its parts in the final will go on to lift the cup.
In what is a clash between India’s youngest champions and Iraq’s oldest club, it is somewhat surprising that both clubs will take their first shots at continental glory come Saturday.