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Story of Abahani’s unprecedented success in AFC Cup

  • Published at 07:49 pm July 18th, 2019
Abahani
Abahani players and officials celebrate following their win over Minerva Punjab in the AFC Cup in Assam AFC

This article was published in the June issue of Sports Tribune magazine

Little around two years ago Bangladesh football was in dire straits with the national team having no international fixtures throughout the year and the premier league champions continuing their poor impact in international tournaments. Many wondered whether it was the end of the tunnel for country’s football.

It eventually turned out to be a transition period and Bangladesh conquered the bleak phase brilliantly and shone with some light in their return to international stage last year, by making historic qualification in the Asian Games knockout stage followed by hopeful performance in the Saff Championship and the Bangabandhu Gold Cup.

That spark ignited the club football as well and country’s footballing powerhouse has registered an unprecedented achievement in the annals of the country’s game. 

The six-time professional league champions, Abahani repeatedly failed in the AFC Cup, the prestigious tournaments in Asia level, previous years but this time around the Sky Blues made remarkable turnaround in the tournament. Abahani showed how a well-planned domestic football calendar can help the local club perform well in the international event as well.

On June 26, Abahani became the first Bangladeshi club to make it into the knockout stage of the AFC Cup after beating I-League champions Minerva Punjab 1-0 in their last group fixture away in Guwahati, Assam. The victory came out as greater significance as it was Minerva’s first defeat in the competition after drawing all their previous five matches.

Afghan defender Masih Saighani has been in terrific form for Abahani in the AFC Cup this season and it was his 93-minute header that helped Abahani snatch all three points and conclude the group campaign on top to qualify for the Inter-Zone play-off semifinals. It was Abahani’s third consecutive victory, fourth in total, in the AFC Cup this year and they never managed two wins in a row in the same competition before, showing how wonderful endeavor they are enjoying this time round.

With four wins, a draw and a loss, Abahani lead the Group E table with 13 points from six matches, two points ahead of Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC who earned a narrow 3-2 win over Nepal champions Manang Marshyangdi Club on the same afternoon but Abahani’s late winner sunk their party.

Abahani’s performance has made significant improvement comparing to the previous editions as they lost four matches, drew one and won only one to finish at the bottom half of the group table in each of the last two editions in 2017 and 2018. From 2008 to 2013, Abahani made five appearances in the now-defunct AFC President’s Cup but never could manage to overcome group stages.

The Dhanmondi giant kept last year’s squad, which managed only four points out of six matches in the last edition, almost unchanged. But, not only the sheer change of players’ determination, but also the alteration of local league’s fixture helped the side to boost their game in the highest echelon.

Abahani manager Satyajit Das Rupu explained the reasons of such a transformation for this side.

“In the previous editions we played the tournament after the end of the domestic league. That is why players couldn’t give their best as they focused on moving to a new club. This time, the premier league and the AFC Cup are taking place simultaneously, which is helping the players so far to give more effort and performing well in the latter competition as well,” said Rupu after Abahani registered their highest margin win (5-0 vs Manang Marshyangdi) in the competition at home.

The foreign players’ quota was also increased to four from this season with the introduction of an Asian player quota. Abahani’s Asian recruit Saighani has been playing a crucial role in the AFC Cup with three goals, albeit being a defender. Not only the attacking prowess, he is fulfilling defensive responsibilities in the absence of experienced defender Tapu Barman.

Portuguese tactician Mario Lemos deserved big credits but it was perhaps most importantly the team’s overall performance that gave Abahani the unprecedented success. The players did hardly let the team feel the absence of its three key players due to injury – defender Barman, midfielders Atiqur Rahman Fahad and Wellington Priori – and lately in-form Nigerian striker Sunday Chizoba for the crucial match against Minerva away.

Here we take a quick look at Abahani’s results in six group matches.

Manang Marshyangdi Club 0-1 Abahani

ANFA Complex, Kathmandu on April 3

It was the first time a Nepalese side had participated in the group stage of AFC Cup and the hosts began the game brightly before Saighani silenced the crowd with the only goal of the game in the 28th minute.

The goal came against the run of play when Rubel Miya’s cross from the left side was headed home by Saighani at the back post. All of Abahani’s four foreign recruits featured in that game.

Abahani 2-2 Minerva Punjab

Bangabandhu National Stadium, Dhaka, April 17

Abahani conceded an early goal in the 16th minute when a low cross from Makan Winkle Chote was converted by Al Amnah, but the Sky Blues took only four minutes to put things in level when Nabib Newaz Ziban placed home in a cross from Sohel Rana.

A silly defensive mistake by Abahani allowed Minerva take the lead again in the 42nd minute. Substitute Sreyas Gopalan snatched a misplaced pass across the 18-yard line before smashing the ball into the corner. The hosts restored the parity three minutes into the second half when Sunday sent the ball home on a rebound followed by Waly Faisal’s free-kick.

Chennaiyin FC 1-0 Abahani

The Arena Stadium, Ahmedabad, April 30

It was an unlucky day for the Sky Blues away in India as a late own goal not only gave Chennaiyin all three points but also put the Indian Super League champions top of the table after Matchday Three.

The goal came in the 79th minute when Chennaiyin’s Anirudh Thapa tried to cut the ball across goal but Wellington Priori got in the way and deflected the ball into his own net. The visitors made a bright start and also continued to fight till the end but failed to create any clear cut chance.

Abahani 3-2 Chennaiyin FC

Bangabandhu National Stadium, Dhaka, May 15

Abahani took the revenge against ISL champions at home in style as talismanic midfielder Mamunul Islam netted a brilliant late winner to guide his side come from behind to salvage its second win in the meet.

CK Vineeth’s sixth-minute goal saw Chennaiyin lead the opening half 1-0 before Belfort and Saighani scored in the 64th and 69th minute respectively to turn the game around. Isaac Vanmalsawma made all square in the 74th minute before Mamunul’s long-ranger won Abahani the game two minutes before the stipulated time.

Abahani 5-0 Manang Marshyangdi

Bangabandhu National Stadium, Dhaka, June 19

Abahani carried on their fine form to clinch second consecutive victory for the first time in the AFC Cup when they ousted Manang 5-0 which was also their biggest margin win in the competition.

Manang were no match as the Sky Blues continued to entertain the home crowds thanks to one goal each from Ziban (11’), Belfort (45+2’), Jewel Rana (63’), Sunday (75’) and Mamunul (90+5’). Mamunul’s goal was later adjudged the best goal of the week.

Minerva Punjab 0-1 Abahani

Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati, June 26

Minerva were the only side in the group who hadn’t lost a game out of the previous five matches and Bangladesh champions had to break it to make their historic qualification in the knockout stage.

After goalless moments in the stipulated time, the winning goal came up dramatically in the injury time when Saighani headed home in Belfort’s header in a corner to finish the group campaign as champion.