Ceres-Negros FC ended their campaign in the 2017 AFC Cup with a 1-1 draw at home against Tajikistan's FC Istiklol at the Pana-ad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City last night.
Istiklol advanced to the Inter-Zone finals on a 5-1 aggregate.
Despite the loss, the Busmen remain unbeaten at home in the AFC Cup this season following a successful run in the Group Stage against Singapore's Tampines Rovers (5-0), Malaysia's Felda United (0-0), and Vietnam's Hanoi FC (6-2).
Ceres made history at the Pana-ad as they outplayed 2015 AFC Cup champions Johor DarulTa'Zim of Malaysia, 2-1, in the ASEAN Zone semi-finals and went on to claim the ASEAN crown against Singapore's Home United, 2-0.
Conceding four away goals to Istiklol in the Inter-Zone semi-finals, the Busmen needed a miracle to overturn the deficit at home. Unfazed by the herculean task, Ceres gave their all against Istiklol last night and bowed out of the AFC Cup with a 1-1 draw.
Taking every opportunity to score, the Busmen broke the ice in the 33 rd minute on Manuel Herrera's header. Maintaining their focus, Istiklol equalized in first half injury time with a strike from Dmitry Barkov.
“We lost to a much better team but I am proud of my players. It was not easy for us but they fight until the end,” Ceres head coach RistoVidakovic said.
Vidakovic said Ceres played more games than Istiklol as they have to go through the knockout stage and the ASEAN zonals before reaching the Inter-Zone semi-finals.
“They are just waiting for us,” Vidakovic said. Istiklol passed through an easier route to the Inter-Zone semi-finals as they only needed to top their group against three Central Asian teams to advance.
But while they are happy to be in the Inter-Zone Final, Istiklol head coach Mukhamadiev Mukhsin was upset by the two yellow cards and one red card his team got from the referee last night.
With the red card, Istiklol's defender Artem Baranovskyi will not be able to play in the Inter-Zone Final.
“I want to see that referee and talk to him. The rule might have change in football,” Mukhsin said through an interpreter.
Being used to the artificial pitch at home, the Istiklol coach also griped on the condition of the natural pitch that was dampened by rain and rendered it slippery.
Istiklol will face in the final the winner between JSW Bengaluru of India and and 4.25 Sports Club of North Korea, with the Inter-Zone champion progressing to the championship round against the finalist from West Asia.*NAB
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