Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Bengaluru FC fought hard, but were done in by dubious decisions at the end, as they went down 0-1 to a resolute FC Istiklol side in the first leg of the 2017 AFC Cup Inter-zone final at the Hisor Central Stadium, in Dushanbe, on Wednesday.
A first half goal from Dmitri Barkov (27th minute) puts Istiklol in the driving seat with Bengaluru FC having all to play for in the second leg at home, to be played on October 18.
Collin Abranches started ahead of Harmanjot Khabra at right-back in the only change that Albert Roca rung in from the side that held 4.25 SC to a draw away in DPR Korea.
The Blues got things off to an impressive start, defending with calm and pegging Istiklol back with swift counter attacks. But the home side made the most of a lapse in focus from Bengaluru when Dmitri Barkov met Fathuloev Fathullo’s cross from the right with a fantastic diving header to make it 1-0 in the 27th minute.
Sunil Chhetri soon had a chance to pull one back after being set up by Lenny Rodrigues but the skipper dragged his shot wide. At the other end, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu denied Ehsoni Panshanbe with a fantastic save to keep Bengaluru in the game at half time.
The second half saw Bengaluru FC keep more possession of the ball while trying to penetrate through the Istiklol defense. The hosts meanwhile, opted to push up on swift counter attacks, and one such move earned them a free-kick in a decent area just outside the box on the right in the 52nd minute. However, once again it was Gurpreet who pulled off another diving save to keep the score at 1-0.
A little over the hour mark, Roca threw in Khabra for Abranches and Daniel Lalhlimpuia for Toni Dovale as Bengaluru began putting Istiklol under pressure. Udanta Singh was throwing his pace at the defence but the hosts managed to stuff out any chance of a final ball.
The final quarter of the game saw some end-to-end action with both sides going all-out attack. Chhetri was once again the target man inside the box, but the skipper lacked the finishing touch inside the box.
With the Blues putting their bodies on the line in the final few minutes of the game, a quick counter attack right at the death almost changed the game. Udanta set on a solo and sprinted past a host of defenders down the left flank. His powerful drive was saved by the keeper and the rebound fell for Chhetri whose shot was clearly handled inside the box by a defender.
However, the referee waived play-on despite multiple protests by the Blues in the game’s most decisive moment with the final whistle blowing seconds later.
Speaking at the end of the game, Blues’ skipper Sunil Chhetri said, “We played very well in the second half and I think we deserved a goal. But it’s only one goal and we have all to play for in the second leg at home.”