Bengaluru: Bengaluru FC’s dreams of creating history by becoming the first Indian club to play in two AFC Cup finals was short-lived after the 10 men hosts were held to a 2-2 draw by FC Istiklol of Tajikistan resulting in a 2-3 defeat on aggregate in the second leg of the inter-zonal play-off at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday.
Needing to overturn a 0-1 defecit, Bengaluru’s fate was sealed three minutes into the match when Istiklol were awarded a penalty following a miscommunication between goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and midfielder Lenny Rodrigues inside the D. Davronov Nuruddin made no mistake from the resulting shot giving his side a valuable away goal advantage along with a lead.
With pressure building up and a three goal defecit to overcome Bengaluru attacked from the wings and equalised soon in the 24th minute when Rahul Bheke put in a powerful header from a Udanta Singh cross to send the stadium into a frenzy. Captain Sunil Chhetri almost scored another after a while but unfortunately his shot hit the bar.
But then just when it looked Bengaluru were well in the course of making a comeback win, right-back Harmanjot Khabra received marching orders after a second yellow card two minutes before the break following a needless tackle on Dmitry Barkov. The send-off further deprived ‘The Blues’ chances as Istiklol re-established their domination in the match. The Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev led side, undefeated in the last 30 games further took the lead in the 56th minute through Dmitry Barkov.
Although Sunil Chhetri soon equalised via a penalty nine minutes later it was over for the 2016 runners-up as Istiklol defended in numbers to see out the match. The Indian club will however rue their missed chances as they could have well reached the final had they scored from atleast a couple of easy chances, instead succumbed to the pressure of playing in front of the home fans.
A win here would have not only sailed them through to the final but also created history for Indian football making them only the first club to reach two B AFC Cup finals in simultaneous years. The Albert Roca coaches side will now prepare for the Indian Super League starting next month.
2015 AFC Cup runners-up Istiklol FC will however have one more to step to beat for glory when they take on the defending champions Air Force club (Iraq) at the Hisor Central Stadium in Dushanbe on November 4.