By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Newbies Istiklol knew they had faced a steep learning curve in their first Asian Champions League appearance, but with a point in their opener, club Tajikistan hopes to do better against the AGMK of Uzbekistan on Sunday.
The two Central Asian clubs – represented in the Asian Football Confederation by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan – have never met in the group stage of the Asian Champions League.
But that will change in Riyadh when Istiklol and AGMK, both of whom are making their debut appearances in the competition, face off at King Fahd International Stadium.
Previously, only teams from Uzbekistan have qualified for this phase of play since the start of the Continental Club Championship in 2002.
Tajikistan champion Istiklol celebrated his first game of the competition with a draw against former finalists Shabab Al Ahli, while AGMK, also making their debut, held 2019 champion Al Hilal.
The difference in level from their usual experiences, however, was apparent.
“It was a tough game for us, but we managed to get an important point,” said Istiklol goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, who put on a Man of the Match performance to hold the UAE club. remotely.
“And we’ll try to do our best in the next game.
“I want to stress that the pace of the game was really fast, compared to our championship, so that was a bit of a problem for us.”
Both clubs gained access to the group stage after being extended from 32 to 40 teams, with only the winners of each of the 10 groups being sure to advance to the round of 16.
Despite the challenges his squad face, AGMK coach Mirdjalal Kasimov insisted his squad won’t just do the numbers for this year’s tournament, which is being played at a series of hubs. biosecurity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I told the players that we weren’t just going to compete,” said Kasimov, who previously led Uzbek side Bunyodkor in the Asian Champions League.
“They have to do their best to make our fans happy and take the opportunity to impress.
“The match schedule is tight and we are playing during Ramadan, which means we have to put a lot of effort into helping the players recover and be ready for the next game.”
(Reporting by Michael Church, editing by Kim Coghill)