Even if the Warriors fail to progress into the ACL group stages, they still have a shot at continental success with the AFC Cup.
Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC are all set to battle it out for glory in rather unchartered territory in the history of both the clubs – AFC Champions League and AFC Cup qualifying playoffs. The I-League and ISL outfits have never participated in continental competitions before.
By virtue of India’s AFC points, the 2017-18 I-League champions are slotted in Preliminary Round 2 of the playoffs and will be facing Iranian club Saipa FC. The Tehran-based side came fourth in the 2017-18 Persian Gulf Pro League. If Minerva manage to win the one-off fixture on 12th February 2019, they will progress to the final playoff round, where they will face Qatar’s Al-Rayyan on 19th February 2019.
Only after winning against the Qatar Stars League side, will the Ranjit Bajaj-owned club qualify for the continent’s top competition. But, if Minerva don’t qualify for the ACL group stages, they will directly drop down to the AFC Cup, where they will be slotted in Group E. If this happens, the Chandigarh-based side will be placed alongside league winners from Bangladesh and Nepal and the victors of the the playoff tie between Chennaiyin and Transport United/Colombo FC.
On the other hand, reigning Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC will have to go through a two-legged playoff round (6th and 13th March 2019) against Sri Lanka’s Colombo FC or Bhutan’s Transport United. Colombo and Transport face each other in a two-legged Preliminary Round playoff.
Minerva had an excellent 2017-18 season, where they topped the table in an electrifying manner, beating the likes of NEROCA, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to the title. Although, this campaign hasn’t seen the club reach the potential they promised, as they linger in seventh position after one win, one draw, and two losses. Meanwhile, Chennaiyin have also had similar fortunes, with the side being a complete contrast to their title-winning season. The John Gregory-managed outfit are second last in the ISL standings with one win, one draw and five losses.
It will be interesting to see how both the sides perform, after poor returns this season. What will be of more particular interest, is if Minerva fail to qualify for the ACL group stages, then they will be placed in a group, where Chennaiyin have a direct qualification route into. This is also the first time an ISL club will be going into the continental fray.