Afghanistan defender Masih Saighani’s 93rd minute header was enough for Abahani Limited to clinch their third consecutive victory in the AFC Cup for the first time in history as the Sky Blues concluded their group phase campaign on top to qualify for the inter-zone play-off semi-final
Abahani made historic qualification to the AFC Cup knockout stage as the first ever Bangladeshi club in history after edging I-League champion Minerva Punjab 1-0 in their last group stage match at Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, Assam Wednesday afternoon.
Afghanistan defender Masih Saighani’s 93rd minute header was enough for Abahani to clinch their third consecutive victory in the AFC Cup for the first time in history as the Sky Blues concluded their group phase campaign on top to qualify for the inter-zone play-off semi-final.
With four wins, a draw and a loss, Abahani finished top of Group E with 13 points from six matches, two points ahead of Indian Super League champion Chennaiyin FC, who earned a narrow 3-2 win over Nepal winner Manang Marshyangdi Club on the same afternoon, but Abahani’s late winner sunk their party.
Apart from south Asian zone winner, Abahani, the winner of Group I (East Asia Zone), April 25 of North Korea have also qualified for the inter-zone play-off.
The other two teams will be the champion of Group D and the winner of Asean zonal final.
The semi-final fixtures of these two teams will be decided in a draw.
Abahani can now focus on Bangladesh Premier League, which resumes Thursday.
Abahani head coach Mario Lemos started the game with only two foreign recruits and had to make some adjustments in the forward and defence line in the absence of Sunday Chizoba, who didn’t get the visa to travel to India.
Saad Uddin started up front along with Kervens Belfort and Nabib Newaj Jibon while Waly Faisal returned to the back-four, which was the only change from Abahani’s 5-0 win over Manang last week.
Minerva created the first chance of the game but Abahani custodian Shahidul Alam Sohel made an easy save to deny Samuel Lalmuapuia’s header from Makan Chote’s cross.
Four minutes later, Abahani’s Haitian forward Belfort unleashed a left-footed shot from the left side of the six-yard box, but the effort was blocked.
Saad, Belfort and Jibon continued to pile the pressure on the opponent, but couldn’t create any clear-cut opportunity in the opening half.
Jibon had a left-footed effort from the right side of the box at the half-hour mark but Minerva goalkeeper Bhaskar Roy made a decent save.
Saad found himself in a good position outside the box, but his weak left-footed effort couldn’t trouble the Minerva keeper in the 34th minute.
Abahani went close once again a minute later but this time, Sohel Rana’s grounder from 35 yards was saved by the custodian in the bottom left corner.
The home side had two fine opportunities in the 41st and 80th minute, but Moinuddin Khan, with all the time and space inside the box fired over the bar before Akashdeep Singh hit the side post from the middle of the box.
The game slowed down in the second half with Abahani continuing to dominate the midfield but lacked fruitful final touches in the opponent’s terrain until the injury-time winner by Saighani.
Belfort headed a Jibon corner from the right side of the box towards the path of the unmarked Saighani, who headed home calmly to hand Minerva their first defeat in the AFC Cup.
Abahani players had gone into ecstatic celebration after the final whistle three minutes later.