Filipino clubs Global FC and Ceres-Negros FC will have a more challenging path towards the final of Asia’s second-tier club football tournament after recent changes in its competition format.
The AFC Cup has since deviated from its usual east-west format to a new zonal one which will feature five different zones across Asia namely: West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, ASEAN, and East Asia. West Asia and ASEAN Zones will have three groups while the rest will only have one each. The new format also allows more teams to join the group stage, with this years competition having 34 teams and possibly stretching it to 36 in the future.
Next round qualification will also be different this year as the tournament will name Zonal winners who will move on to the latter rounds of the competition. With Global and Ceres both in the ASEAN groups, they will have to be the top teams of their group or be the best runner up of the three groups to qualify for the four-team ASEAN Zonal semi final.
The Filipino clubs will need to endure a two-legged zonal semifinal and another two-legged zonal final in order to win the ASEAN Zone, unlike other groups which only need to top the group stage to be declared zone winners. The West Asia Zone, which also has the groups, will also need a zonal semi-final and final but the West Asia winners have the incentive to go straight to the AFC Cup final.
If winning the ASEAN Zone will be tough enough for the Pinoy squads, the Inter-Zone playoff will be another tough nut to crack as they will have to face the other well-rested zonal winners who would have played four games less. The Inter-Zone playoffs will entail another level of two-legged semifinal and final matches before the remaining AFC Cup finalist is declared.
For this years tournament, East Asia will have the shortest path to the tournament needing only to get results in 8 games to reach the final as they have only three participants in their group. They are followed by West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia with 10 games while ASEAN will need to hurdle 14 games before doing so.
The lack of domestic competition will be a big challenge in Ceres and Global’s AFC Cup campaign as top squads from other ASEAN nations are already 5-6 games in their domestic campaigns. With the Philippines Football League still in the works, both teams need to shake their cobwebs fast to match the pace of their opponents. Kaya and Ceres’ good performance in AFC Cup group stages was attributed to both teams playing in the UFL Cup which started a few weeks before the AFC tournament last year.
Nevertheless, both teams will be eager to eclipse the historic round of 16 achievement of 2016. AFC Cup action starts on February 21 with Global facing Myanmar champions Magwe in Rizal Memorial while Ceres will travel to Vietnam to play juggernaut Hanoi FC.