Ahead of the AFC Challenge Cup in Maldives, we will be previewing each of the 8 teams that will participate for a chance to reach the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. Click on the links below to see each team’s preview, once available:
Tuesday, May 20th (Addu City) – Philippines
Thursday, May 22nd (Addu City) – Turkmenistan
Saturday, May 24th (Addu City) – Laos
You can also check out our Predictions Page to see our projected winners in each match.
Afghanistan is a somewhat of a unique case. They were one of only 2 nations, along with Palestine, to top their qualifying group despite not hosting the matches. To make things even more impressive, they only tallied a total of 3 goals, and STILL topped the group. But they certainly deserved to win it. They needed a goal from Sandjar Ahmadi in the 58th minute to draw with Laos and advance to the finals. Had they lost that match, they ultimately would’ve missed out on the finals.
They have appeared in the Challenge Cup in both 2006 and 2008, but have only come away with a total of 2 points in 6 matches. They missed out on the past 2 editions of the Challenge Cup, but the team is playing a much better level of football. Since the start of 2013, they have played 10 matches against teams not named Tajikistan. In those 10 matches, they’ve only allowed a total of 2 goals. This team is clearly built on holding the back line. Currently, Afghanistan is #138 in our rankings, putting them just behind Turkmenistan for tops in Group B. They had been ahead of Turkmenistan prior to their recent defeat.
Before the Tournament
Afghanistan has the most warm-up friendlies of any nation in the AFC Challenge Cup. They’ve already lost away to Tajikistan 1-0, and also drawn with Kyrgyzstan 0-0. These matches weren’t scheduled at the best of times. There also will be an upcoming 3 team round robin tournament in Kuwait featuring Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and hosts Kuwait. The team should be fully together at that point. These friendlies take place on 5/12 and 5/14, which is a week before the team starts competition.
Like a few other nations in the tournament, Afghanistan made a recent coaching change. Of course after Afghanistan’s historic SAFF Championship win last September, the AFC suspended head coach Mohammad Yousof Kargar for 4 matches. Eric Rutemöller will take over as head coach. We had the pleasure of speaking with Afghanistan’s Sandjar Ahmadi (you can read the full interview here). He had this to say about Rutemöller: “I hear a lot from Erich Rutemöller and I saw him in Dubai, but I didn’t speak with him until now. Maybe in Tajikistan we will have time or in Kuwait when we have training camp.” It remains to be seen how the coaching change will affect Afghanistan, but the team hasn’t scored in their two warmup matches thus far.
Ahmadi is the key for Afghanistan. The rising 22 year old always seems to be there when the team needs him. He scored the winning goal in the SAFF Championship semis and tallied again in the final. Asked if he plans on scoring again in the big games, he said “It doesn’t matter who scores the goal; It’s important to win the games. But of course I will be happy to score goals for the National team for my country.”
Afghanistan has fared very well in recent times. Prior to the defeat against Tajikistan, they had a 7 match unbeaten streak. Also prior to that loss, they had only 2 losses in their previous 17 matches. This is a pretty impressive statistic. The real concern from our perspective is the level of competition they’ve faced. The team has performed very well against weaker competition, but in the past 3 years, they’ve only played 6 matches against teams in our Top 150. They have just 2 points to show from those 6 matches, which include matches against fellow Challenge Cup participants Kyrgyzstan and Palestine.
But that problem seems to be the common theme among all of these teams. It is what will make this tournament so competitive. Afghanistan has never defeated any of the 3 members in their group. In fact, in a total of 5 matches, they’ve gotten just 2 points against these 3 opponents. The Afghanistan team of today, however, is very different than it had been in the past.
For 10 years, Afghanistan did not play a home match. Last summer in Kabul, they thrashed Pakistan by 3-0 ahead of their SAFF Championship win. The tide is turning in Afghanistan, and it will be interesting to see where this team goes. The potential is certainly there.
We wouldn’t read too much into the performances against Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Our rankings had those games predicted correctly, so it doesn’t really influence our view of the team. Playing this tournament in a neutral venue should work to their advantage here. It should be interesting to see what happens against the Philippines. If Afghanistan can come away with 3 points, they’ll be as good as through to the knockout stage.
We like Afghanistan and give them almost a 75% chance of advancing past the group stage. We also think that there’s a greater than 40% chance they top the group. They may not end up defeating Turkmenistan, but they may not have to. Asked if Afghanistan is the team to beat, Ahmadi said “We hope and want to win in the group, and then I hope we win the tournament. We will do everything in all games to win this.” We think that this is the team to beat, and they’ll come out on top.
Projected Group Finish: 1st