Pakhtakor had come from two goals down against Tractor FC on Wednesday, leading 3-2 with five minutes to go only to be clawed back by a late Mohammad Abbaszadeh penalty and settle for a point.
Air Force Club will be the fourth different Iraqi side Pakhtakor have faced in the AFC Champions League. In the inaugural edition in 2002-03 they defeated Al Talaba SC 3-0 in the group stage, and two years later they were drawn against Al Zawraa at the same stage but lost both games. Then in 2008, Pakhtakor faced Arbil and won 2-0 and 5-1.
Head coach Pieter Huistra will rely on the experience and prowess of veteran forward Dragan Ceran who opened Pakhtakor’s account in the competition, but the Dutchman will face some selection headaches as it was two substitute players – Sharof Mukhitdinov and Hojimat Erkinov – who delivered his side’s second and third goals against Tractor, making a compelling case for a starting spot.
"Tomorrow we play a good team. They played very well against Sharjah. We have to prepare as good as possible. Yes, we faced them in 2019 AFC Champions League playoff, it was one game and both teams have changed a bit since then," said Huistra.
"Both teams are leading the domestic league tables in Uzbekistan and Iraq. We watched Air Force Club against Sharjah and they showed they are a good team with quality players. Some of them from that game two years ago were still there.
"Playing in a group stage is different, we have to prepare for the whole group stage including two games against them. Two years ago it was only one off and you have to win to advance, but now we have more breathing space but it will be equally important."
For Air Force Club, a return to the AFC Champions League for the first time in 13 years was derailed by a defeat, albeit a narrow one, to Group B hosts Sharjah. The Iraqis showed plenty of fight and flair but could not break their opponents' defence and ultimately conceded midway through the second half as Khalid Bawazir struck Sharjah’s only goal of the night.
The Baghdad-based club had been denied a place in the AFC Champions League two years earlier by none other than their upcoming opponents, losing to Pakhtakor 2-1 in the 2019 AFC Champions League playoff and Saturday marks the first time they face Uzbek opponents in the group stage of the competition.
Head coach Ayoub Odisho might find himself forced to make changes up front as striker Ayman Hussein, whose goal helped Air Force Club overcome Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda SC in the playoff, suffered a facial injury after a clash of heads with an opponent on Matchday One.
"In this type of competition with the players staying in the bubble, the mental and psychological state of everyone is important. After losing the first match, the next one will be a very important match for us against a strong team like Pakhtakor. A team that can come back from two goals down to score three, that is a sign of quality in the team," said Odisho.
"The medical staff and local medical authorities in Sharjah took good care of Ayman Hussein after his injury. He has been advised to get three days of rest and recovery and we have to wait to see what his condition is. Today, we will get feedback from the doctors and will make a final decision on whether he is going to need surgery or can resume training with the team."
Air Force Club (IRQ) v Pakhtakor (UZB)
Venue: Sharjah Stadium, Sharjah
Kick-off: Saturday, 19:00 hours (UTC+4)