A 10-man but spirited Bangladesh top tier champion Abahani Limited conceded a narrow 1-0 defeat against Maldives top-flight winner New Radiant Sporting Club in their Group E opening match at Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka Wednesday afternoon.
The home side put up a brave fight throughout the game but a seven-minute debacle in the second half made the key difference when Maldives’ domestic top-scorer Ali Fasir netted the visitor's only goal before the Sky Blues were reduced to 10 men after in-form Nigerian striker Sunday Chizoba received a red card with half-an-hour left to the final whistle.
Abahani head coach Saiful Bari Titu fielded an unusual but effective starting XI that dominated ball possession, as well as the midfield, in the first half an hour. With the visitor gaining momentum slowly, the host created most of the chances through the right flank, and also continued losing possession on the same side.
The most veteran player on the pitch, Nasir Uddin Chowdhury paired with combative Nigerian defender Alison Udoka in the centre-back position while versatile winger Saad Uddin was placed down the right-back position.
Atiqur Rahman Fahad was given the task to hold the midfield while Sohel Rana and Seiya Kojima worked hard in the absence of Emon Babu. Emeka Darlington started up front with Sunday and Rubel Mia on the wing but the yet to be fully fit Emeka's lack of movement cost the side around half a dozen of off-sides.
Both the defences stayed alert from the very beginning, as a result preventing the opposition forwards to break through the danger zone. Udoka and Nasir had a fine game before the goal while Spanish midfielder Ruiz Paz Candela guided the New Radiant defence with aplomb.
The Sky Blues went agonisingly close to scoring in the 27th minute but Sunday, despite his solo effort where he broke through the opponent’s defence, squandered a golden opportunity. Receiving a short pass from Nasir near the halfway line, Sunday drifted past the New Radiant's defensive line before running into the penalty area only to shoot the ball over the bar.
Sunday had a couple of chances afterwards. In the 44th minute, he snatched the ball away from Candela outside the box before wasting it with a weak grounder. The Nigerian went close to breaking the deadlock once again three minutes into the second half, heading a Rubel cross over the bar from the middle of the box.
Fasir broke the heart of the Abahani fans by putting the visitor ahead in the 58th minute, placing home past goalkeeper Shahidul Alam Sohel with a clever left-footed strike into the far post after a through pass from midfielder Mohamed Umair set the forward up at the left side of the box.
Sunday received his second booking for an unnecessary foul in the 65th minute to leave Abahani down to 10 men for the rest of the game. The Nigerian striker will also miss Abahani's second group match away to Bengaluru Wednesday.
The visiting side also penetrated the Abahani defence several times but the experienced Sohel along with the back-four ensured full protection on those occasions. In the 38th minute, Saad made a superb clearance in front of the goal-line to alter the direction of Guillem's chip. Udoka made a headed goal-line clearance in the 70th minute to deny Ali Ashfaq's looping effort. Sohel produced two crucial saves in the either side of each half.
Despite playing with a man less, the Sky Blues continued their fighting attitude, replacing midfielder Sohel for striker Nabib Newaj Jibon, earning free-kick at the right edge of the box and forcing three consecutive corners in the dying stage of injury time. But all went in vein due to a lack of finishing touch up front.
Shahidul Alam Sohel; Nasir Uddin Chowdhury, Waly Faisal, Alison Udoka, Saad Uddin (Mamun Miah); Atiqur Rahman Fahad (Rayhan Hasan), Sohel Rana (Nabib Newaj Jibon), Seiya Kojima, Rubel Mia; Emeka Darlington and Sunday Chizoba (red card 65’)
Imran; Gotor Blas, Abdulla Ahmdad (Mohamed Rasheed), Akram Ghanee, Hisam Saleem; Hamza Mohamed, Ruiz Paz Candela, Mohamed Umair, Ali Fasir; Guillem Misut (Nasheed Imran) and Ali Ashfaq