Ceres-Negros FC faces a big test when they go up against Central Asia Zone winners FC Istiklol in the First Leg of the Inter-Zone Semifinals of the AFC Cup on August 22 at the Hisor Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
The 2015 AFC Cup finalist progressed to the playoffs after topping Central Asia’s Group D where they finished with an unbeaten record of five wins and a draw. Ceres-Negros meanwhile topped Group G with eleven points, tied with Hanoi FC, but progressed to the Zonal semis due to the head-to head tie-breaker. The Filipino club beat Johor Darul Ta’zim and Home United to claim the ASEAN Zone crown and reach the playoffs.
Manuchekhr Dzhalilov is the top scorer for Istiklol after scoring five goals, all against FC Alay of Krygystan. Bienvenido Maranon scored eight goals while striker Fernando Rodriguez have five for Ceres-Negros. Both teams have scored plenty in the group stages and a high scoring affair seems imminent in the semifinals.
“We expect always tough games,” said Ceres Coach Risto Vidakovic. “We saw a lot of games from Istiklol but it’s not easy to know actually how strong they are because we don’t know how strong is the league here so well see tomorrow. If they reach this part of competition, I suppose that they are very strong. So we will do our best we try to play better than we can. We will try to reach a better result tomorrow,” he added.
Ceres midfielder Kevin Ingreso also shares the same sentiment as his coach “I think it will be a very tough game. This is the part of the AFC Cup where only teams are already champions of different zones so I guess it will be very very difficult and hard game. But I think we will be good, prepared. We got a lot of information from the coaching staff. I think will be a very good test for us and I think we will be prepared for that game.”
The Tajikistan squad has foreign players in key positions such as Serbian goalkeeper Nikola Stosic, Russian striker Dmitri Barkov, and Ukrainan defender Artem Baranovskyi. Istiklol has no Asian player in their lineup but Ghanian midfielder David Mawutor is listed as a local player in the team sheet.
Istiklol’s Dilshod Vasiev and Dzhalilov are the most popular players in the team who also features talented veteran and youth players who are also part of their national squad. Vidakovic sees the home squad as a very challenging opposition. “I think they have a really good individual players. They have five foreign players and all of the team is really strong because they’re first in the league. They reached this part of competition so they must be a strong team,” said the former La Liga veteran.
Ceres will miss the services of Manuel “Super” Herrera on defense while Istiklol will be without star winger Jahongir Aliev. The two players are out due to accumulated yellows but will be available on the second leg. The semifinalists are expected to field their best lineups come game day. The match will be played in the brand new stadium in Dushanbe with the first leg being the inaugural match. Fox Sports (1) will show the game live at 10PM Philippine time.