HONG KONG (Reuters) - Debutants Istiklol knew they faced a steep learning curve in their first appearance in the Asian Champions League, but with a point secured from their opening game the Tajikistan club will hope to go one better against Uzbekistan's AGMK on Sunday.
The two clubs from Central Asia - which is represented in the Asian Football Confederation by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan - have never met in the group phase of the Asian Champions League.
But that will change in Riyadh when Istiklol and AGMK, who are both making their first appearances in the competition, go head-to-head at the King Fahd International Stadium.
Previously, only teams from Uzbekistan have qualified for this phase of play since the continental club championship was launched in 2002.
Tajikistan champions Istiklol celebrated their first game in the competition with a draw against former finalists Shabab Al Ahli while AGMK, also making their debut, held 2019 champions Al Hilal.
The difference in standard from their usual experiences was apparent, however.
"It was a tough game for us, but we managed to get an important point," said Istiklol goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, who put on a Man of the Match performance to keep the club from the United Arab Emirates at bay.
"And we will try to do our best in the next match.
"I do want to highlight that the pace of the match was really quick, as compared to our league, so that posed us a little problem."
Both clubs earned access to the group phase after it was expanded from 32 to 40 teams, with only the winners of each the 10 groups sure to advance to the knockout rounds.
Despite the challenges facing his team, AGMK coach Mirdjalal Kasimov insisted his side would not be merely making up the numbers in this year's tournament, which is being played in a series of biosecure hubs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I told the players that we are not going to just participate in the competition," said Kasimov, who previously led Uzbek side Bunyodkor in Asian Champions League.
"They have to give their best to make our fans happy and take the chance to impress.
“The match schedule is tight and we are playing during Ramadan, which means that we should make big efforts in helping the players recover and be ready for the next match.”
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Kim Coghill)