Bengaluru FC (BFC) played out a goalless draw against North Korean club 4.25 SC to advance to the Inter-Zone Finals of the AFC Cup in Pyongyang on Wednesday. BFC won 3-0 on aggregate after winning the first leg 3-0 in Bengaluru.
They will face Tajikistan's FC Istiklol, the 2015 finalists, in the two-legged Inter-Zone Finals. Istiklol defeated Ceres Negros FC of Philippines 5-1 on aggregate in the other Inter-Zone Semi-finals. BFC had reached the finals of the same tournament last year, where they lost to Iraq's Air Force Club.
BFC will travel to Tajikistan on September 27 before hosting Istiklol in the decisive second leg at Sree Kanteerava Stadium on October 18. The winner of the two-legged match will face either Syria's Al Wahda or Air Force Club of Iraq in the 2017 AFC Cup final on November 4.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who joined BFC last month, was the hero for the visiting side as he saved a penalty kick in the 75th minute of the match. Gurpreet has now kept a clean sheet in his first two matches for BFC.
Head coach Albert Roca named an unchanged XI from their first-leg win in Bengaluru as he persisted with the 4-3-3 formation with Udanta Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Toni Dovale as the front-three. The North Korean side named their top-scorer in the AFC Cup, Kim Yu-Song, in their starting-lineup after a slight niggle had prevented him from starting in the first-leg.
BFC were edged out in terms of possession and chances, but compensated with a stubborn defense as Gurpreet, Juanan Gonzalez, Rahul Bheke, Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar - who was later replaced by Subhasish Bose - kept the 4.25 SC attack at bay. While the first half saw BFC create a few half chances, most notably through Dovale, the hosts managed to control the game. With a sizeable turnout egging the home side to attack, BFC did well to arrive at the break with the scores unchanged.
BFC were forced to sit deep and defend in the second half as tournament top-scorer Kim almost gave 4.25 SC the lead in the 57th minute with a header, but it was Gurpreet who denied the striker yet again. As the game progressed, Hwang Yong Song's side continued to attack and substitute An Il-Bom, who came on in the 61st minute, forced Gurpreet into another brilliant diving save in the 70th.
4.25 had the best chance to break the deadlock in the final quarter of the match as Bheke brought Bom down inside the box in the 77th minute, prompting referee Wang Di to point to the spot. However, Gurpreet dived to his right denying midfielder Ri Hyong Jin's effort from 12 yards. The pressure culminated in another chance in the dying moments of the game, as midfielder Won Song hit the crossbar with an effort from 20-yards out.
"They dominated majority of the game and deserved to win. But at the same time, we defended very well as a team and managed to hold on to our lead from the first leg. We are happy to have made it through and now look to get back to Bengaluru and prepare for the big game against FC Istiklol," Roca said.