By Paulo Loreto Lim
Ceres-Negros FC came into the second leg of the 2017 AFC Cup inter-zone play-off semifinal last night against FC Istiklol at the Panaad Park and Stadium facing an uphill battle after losing the first leg 4-0. The Negrense club, amid a match that included several yellow cards and one ejection, saw their quest for qualification ends as they drew 1-1, losing 5-1 on aggregate.
The match opened with an early yellow card for Ceres midfielder Kevin Ingreso, following a foul on Istiklol forward Manuchekhr Dzhalilov. Additionally, observers claimed Istiklol, with their four goal advantage, were “wasting time” by making several requests for medical attention.
The Negrense club, however, was able to make several shots early in the match, along with a couple corner kicks, nonetheless, goalkeeper Nikola Stošić delivered just as many saves and was able to keep Ceres at bay.
In the 23rd minute, Istiklol midfielder David Mawutor was issued a yellow card following a foul on Ceres midfielder Manuel Ott. Another yellow card was shown to Istiklol midfielder Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev following his involvement in the ensuing fight that resulted from the dangerous foul.
Shortly after, Ceres midfielder Stephan Schröck fell to the ground, grabbing his ankle, following a close swipe from Dzhalilov after the latter tried to retrieve the ball.
By the 33rd minute, Ceres defender Manuel Herrera put Ceres up, 1-0, with a header off a corner kick delivered by Ott.
Three minutes later, Ceres midfielder OJ Porteria nearly set up a second goal after passing to striker Fernando Rodríguez directly in front of goal, however, Stošić managed to get in between and grabbed the ball, making another save for the side from Tajikistan.
Around the 41st minute, Ceres suffered a couple scares, with one attempt from Istiklol flying over the goal and another punched away by keeper Roland Müller. Shortly after, Dzhalilov nearly nailed the equalizer with a tap-in at close range, which was also saved by Müller.
Closing in on the end of first half regulation time, Istiklol forward Dmitry Barkov executed a run towards goal, which was flicked away by Müller. However, a couple minutes later in injury time, Barkov got one past the Ceres keeper, earning the equalizer just before the end of the first half.
Around the 50th minute, despite sloppy defending by the Tajik side, neither Ceres midfielder Iain Ramsay nor Rodríguez were able to capitalize, with the attempt flying above the crossbar.
A couple minutes later, while on a run, Istiklol defender Oleksandr Stetsenko seemingly brought down Schröck with a knee to the back; this action resulted in the midfielder questioning the referee for not disciplining his opponent.
In the 59th minute, Dzhalilov almost put Istiklol ahead, kicking the ball directly at Müller, who was able to tap it away.
The Tajik side appeared to have the momentum in the second half, with the earlier attempt quickly followed by one made by Stetsenko. The Ukraine international was later given a free kick attempt, forcing Müller to make another save.
An exchange of impressive saves took place around the 65th minute, with Stošić making a save after a huge run by Ceres midfielder Bienvenido Marañón. In the subsequent play, Müller saved an attempt by Istiklol forward Dilshod Vasiev.
In the 68th minute, Istiklol defender Artem Baranovskyi was shown a straight red card after bringing Ingreso down and was caught kneeing the Ceres midfielder in the face.
Another collision occurred in the 75th minute after Stošić ran into Ott as the Istiklol keeper attempted to save a shot made by Schröck.
Tensions were running high towards the end of the match, with Marañón and Barkov each picking up a yellow card after the two are involved in a flare-up on the sidelines.
With the victory, FC Istiklol advances to the inter-zone play-off final, where they will meet either Bengaluru FC of India or April 25 Sports Club of North Korea./WDJ