Al Wahda coach Raafat Mohammad admits he is taking the former finalists into the unknown when the Syrian side face off against Turkmenistan’s Balkan in the AFC Cup play-offs on Tuesday.
The Damascus-based club lost in the final of the 2004 AFC Cup and will meet Aleksandr Klimenko’s team in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon with a place in the group phase of the 2016 edition of the competition on the line.
“Of course the match will be very hard because we don’t know a lot about our opponents,” said Mohammad, who picked up a 2014 AFC Cup runners-up medal with Al Wahda before going on to win the title in 2008 with Shabab Al Ordon of Jordan.
“We have a lot of determination to get past Balkan and advance to the group stage, which is our main target.
“This will be our first match in the  competition and hopefully it will not be the last as we hope that we can play in the group stage,” continued the former Syrian international defender, who was assistant coach as Al Wahda made it to the Round of 16 of last year’s AFC Cup, where they bowed out on penalties to eventual runners-up Istiklol.
“Our players have prepared well and they are ready for this important match.”
Lebanon’s Tripoli, meanwhile, go into their meeting with FC Alay of Kyrgyzstan off the back of a penalty shoot-out defeat in the Lebanon Cup to Nejmeh at the end of January.
Tripoli will host the club from Osh as the Lebanese side attempts to secure an appearance in the group stages of the AFC Cup for the first time since 2004, when they were known as Olympic Beirut.
“We are going through a difficult period but I hope that our players who have good international experience will be able to help us in order to win the match,” said Tripoli coach and veteran AFC Cup campaigner Nizar Mahrous, who led Jordan’s Shabab Al Ordon to the 2007 AFC Cup title before finishing runners-up in 2012 with Iraqi side Arbil.
“The two sides will be looking to win especially that it will be one match only so only the winners will advance,” continued the former Syria national team manager.
“In general we prepared well for the match and we have a good side who will be looking to qualify to the group stage.”
FC Alay are aiming to qualify for the group stages for the second time in three seasons having previously featured at the same phase in 2014 and coach Nemat Koshokov is confident his team can advance.
“There is no doubt that the match is very important and I gave my instructions to the players in order to play with the exact plan that we put in place,” he said. “I hope that we can play a strong match and that the better team wins.
“We are a good side but Tripoli are also a good team and this means that the match will not be easy. We have nothing to lose and we have prepared very well, especially by watching video matches of our opponents.”
Palestine’s Ahli Al Khalil go into their meeting with Tajikistan’s FC Khujand off the back of a 1-0 defeat against Shabab Al Khalil in their domestic league on Tuesday but coach Ayman Sandouqa believes his team can find a way past an opponent he admits to knowing little about.
“I hope that our team can beat Khujand and we will try our best to take advantage of playing in front of our fans to get the ticket to play in the group stage of the competition. Although our task will not be easy,” he said.
“We don’t know a lot about our opponents, neither their strengths nor their weaknesses. However, I’m confident that my players will be able to put in a good performance and get the victory.”
Khujand’s last league match was in mid-November as they finished runners-up to AFC Cup 2015 finalists FC Istiklol in the domestic competition and coach Numonjon Yusupov is aware his team face a difficult challenge to advance to the group stage.
“We know that the match is very difficult for us because we don’t know a lot about Ahli Al Khalil. They are an unfamiliar side for us,” he said. “Also, our players are very tired due to the long trip that we had to come here.
“But we believe in our capabilities and we know we can get a positive result in the match tomorrow. We prepared very well for the match and we are ready to give our best against our strong opponents.”
Meanwhile, Salman Shareedah is in bullish mood as he prepares to take Bahrain’s Al Hidd into their meeting with Pakistan’s K-Electric.
Al Hidd reached the quarter-finals in 2014 before being eliminated in the group stage last year and Shareedah, who had a spell as head coach of the Pakistan national team, believes the 2015 Bahrain King’s Cup, FA Cup, and Super Cup winners are good enough to make into the tournament proper again this season.
“We have a good advantage as our club is better than our opponents,” he said. “Our players know that it will be one match only and they must concentrate in order to avoid any surprises that could confuse us in the match.
“Football in Pakistan has developed a lot recently and it will not be an easy match. However, we are confident that we can win and qualify to the group stage although we must put in a lot of effort to achieve our target.”
K-Electric qualified for the play-off via Group A of the qualifying round held in Bhutan in August but coach Muhamad Hassan knows his team will be required to make a significant step up against an experienced side.
“We will be playing a difficult match against strong opponents,” said Hassan. “I hope we can have a good match although it will not be easy for us.
“We are the league champions of Pakistan and we want to show that we have good football in our country. We will fight for the win despite the fact that there are big differences in football between the two countries.”
AFC Cup 2016 playoff fixtures (9 February 2016)
TRIPOLI CLUB (LIB) v FC ALAY (KGZ)
PO 2 West. Venue: Tripoli Municipal Stadium, Tripoli, Lebanon (13:45 kick off local time)
AL WAHDA (SYR) v BALKAN FC (TKM)
PO 3 West. Venue: Saida Municipal Stadium, Saida, Lebanon (14:15 kick off local time)
AHLI AL KHALIL (PLE) v FC KHUJAND (TJK)
PO 4 West. Venue: Dura Stadium, Hebron, Palestine (16:00 kick off local time)
AL HIDD (BHR) v K-ELECTRIC FC (PAK)
PO 1 West. Venue: Bahrain National Stadium, Manama, Bahrain (18:00 kick off local time)