4th AFC Challenge Cup  from Wednesday: Pakistan get direct entry into Group Stage

Lahore, 8 Feb : Asian Football Confederation allowed Pakistan the bye in the Pre-Qualifying Stage as fourth AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers 2011 will get under way tomorrow, 9 February with first legs of four play-offs. Based on the rankings of the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup, the eight lowest ranked were drawn into four two-legged ties with the four winners advancing to the qualification proper. All matches are on a home and away basis scheduled for 9 and 16 February/15 March 2011. The winner of next year’s final phase will qualify for the Australia’s 16th Asian Cup 2015. Unlike in previous editions, there will be no automatic qualifiers and holders Korea DPR, runners-up Turkmenistan and third-placed Tajikistan will have to navigate the qualification phase in order to return to the final phase. 

New Delhi will host both the matches of Bhutan vs Afghanistan as due to cold weather in both countries, the two federations agreed to play each other in India while Philippines hosted Mongolia at Panaad Stadium, Bacolod in first leg, with Mongolia moved its home game from February 16 to March 15 at the National Stadium, Ulan Bator. Chinese Taipei-Laos first leg will be held at National Stadium, Kaohsiung and Laos will host second leg at National Sports Complex, Vientiane.  National Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh and Estádio Campo Desportivo, Taipa are two venues for Cambodia vs Macau encounters. 

The winner of Chinese Taipei/Laos will face Pakistan, India and Turkmenistan  in Group B while DPR Korea were placed in Group D of the event with Nepal, Sri Lanka and the winner of Bhutan/Afghanistan  playoff. Bangladesh will play Palestine, Myanmar and the winner playoff (Philippines vs Mongolia) in Group A while Group C comprise of Tajikistan, Maldives, winner playoff (Cambodia vs Macau) and Kyrgyzstan. The Group Stage will be played between 20-31 March 2011 and the hosts will be announced later.  

AFC approved new format for the 2012 edition which was ratified by the AFC Executive Committee in Kuala Lumpur. All eligible Member Associations will compete in qualifiers (or playoff, if necessary). If there are more than 16 teams, the teams are to play pre-qualifying round (Home and Away).The Qualifying round shall consist of four groups of four teams each. The winners and runners-up from each group (total eight teams) will qualify for the tournament proper. Only the eight qualified teams for the tournament proper can bid to host the Finals.

AFC launched the biennial AFC Challenge Cup at Bangladesh in 2006. Tajikistan lifted  first edition with a 4-0 thrashing of Sri Lanka in an anti-climax final at the Bangabandhu National Stadium on 16 April 2006. Dzhormikhon Muhidinov notched  hatrick while Khurshed Makhmudov added other as Tajikistan displayed superior skill and strength to take absolute control. 

The 2008 and 2010 editions of the event formed part of the qualifiers for the 15th Asian Cup as the winner of each edition – India, North Korea – entered for 16-teams finals at Qatar last January. Over 20,000 crowd at New Delhi’s Ambedkar stadium gave all out support to Indians and the men in blue scored thrice before the clock touched the 30-minute mark to lead India to a comprehensive 4-1 win over Tajikistan . Sunil Chhetri slammed hattrick – the first by an Indian ever in a final – and Bhaichung Bhutia added another to end the contest even before their opponents warmed up. Fatkhullo Falkuloev found the consolation goal but the early deficit proved too much for the defenders. The final was played on 13 August 2008 at make-shift venue as due to incessant rains in Hyderabad in the days leading up to the final, AFC changed the venue of the final and shifted it to New Delhi. 

Two years later at Sri Lanka on 27 February 2010, Koreans outkicked Turkmenistan 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out after a tense 1-1 draw at Colombo ’s  Sugathadasa Stadium with winner’s Ryang Yong-Gi canceling out Samyradow’s first half goal in the 75th minute. Goalkeeper Ju Kwang-min was the hero with crucially saved Arslanmyrat Amanov’s sudden-death penalty as DPR Korea completed a spirited comeback after playing for just under an hour with 10-men following Ryang Myong-il’s first-half dismissal.

Tomorrow Fixture:

Bhutan v Afghanistan (New Delhi, India)

Philippines v Mongolia (Panaad Stadium, Bacolod)

Chinese Taipei v Laos (National Stadium, Kaohsiung)

Cambodia  v Macau (National Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)