A last-gasp header from Masih Saighani helped Abahani move into the inter-zonal semi-final playoffs of the AFC Cup as the Sky Blues emerged Group E champions with a 1-0 win away to I-League champions Minerva Punjab in their final group match at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Guwahati, Assam yesterday.
With their fourth win in six matches, Bangladesh Premier League champions Abahani topped the four-team table with 13 points, two ahead of Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC, who finished second following their 3-2 win over Nepal’s Manang Marshyangdi Club.
With all four teams of Group E playing their last match at the same time at two different venues, leaders Abahani had the option of booking their place in the playoffs as south zone champions with a victory over Minerva Punjab, but any result other than a win meant they had to depend on the other result between Chennaiyin FC and Manang Marshyangdi.
But things looked tricky as Abahani were kept at bay by the hosts in normal time while Chennaiyin FC were leading 3-2 against Manang Marshyangdi in Kathmandu.
With Minerva Punjab pressing really hard to break the deadlock in the last ten minutes, Abahani earned a corner-kick in the third minute of stoppage time. Nabib Newaz Jibon stepped up to take a curling corner-kick finding Kervens Belfort, who headed it to Saighani and the Afghan defender, who also scored the winning goal in their first match against Manang, nodded home and secured the first-ever knockout round berth in AFC-sanctioned tournaments for the Sky Blues.
The Dhanmondi giants will now face the champions of either central zone, East zone or ASEAN zone in the inter-zone playoff which will be decided through a draw.
Even though Abahani were on the backfoot due to the absence of in-form Nigerian striker Sunday Chizoba, they never looked short of confidence to turn the tables against an unbeaten Minerva Punjab, who pressed in the latter part of the game but faced challenge from Abahani in the beginning.
The first half was fought equally, with both sides coming close to breaking the deadlock but it was Abahani who created the first opportunity in the 20th minute even though winger Jewel Rana was late to connect to a cross from Jibon. Jibon then saw his feeble attempt easily gathered by the opposition goalkeeper Bhaskar Roy.
Midfielder Sohel Rana forced Roy to a brilliant save in the 35th minute before Minerva substitute Moinuddin Khan disappointed the home crowd by floating over the crossbar from inside the box six minutes later.
Abahani defender Tutul Hossain Badsha almost scored an own goal three minutes before the break while Jewel was presented with a fine header by Saad Uddin in the 54th minute, but the winger was late to connect to the ball inside the six-yard box.
On 70 minutes, Jibon again drove wide of the target and then Minerva controlled the game to create three to four chances but Abahani goalkeeper Shahidul Alam Sohel stood tall to thwart a couple of those while the defence also performed well to take Abahani to a new height.