In the last three years, there was no doubt who will be the AFC Cup title holder. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya dominated Asia's secondary club competition, as they defeated their opponents time after time.
Their achievements and the rise of Iraqi football brought the teams in the country a chance to get back to the main stage, the AFC Champions League. Yet, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya missed the chance to qualify automatically to the group stage after finishing at the second place, four points behind the champions Al-Zawraa.
Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya got another chance to qualify from the preliminary round, needing to win only two matches in order to be among the best 32 clubs of Asia. They played in the first match against Pakhtakor, the Uzbek runner-ups that played 13 times at the AFC Champions League group stage since 2003.
The match in Tashkent was an obstacle for the Iraqi side. They managed to keep the score goalless until the 76th minute, but then Jaloliddin Masharipov scored Pakhtakor's first goal. Kamoliddin Tajiev doubled at the 84th minute and Pakhtakor became closer to the next round. The late goal of Hammadi Ahmad didn't help, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya lost 2-1 and been eliminated from the AFC Champions League qualifiers.
According to the AFC rules, the Iraqi side wouldn't be dropped to the AFC Cup, as Iraq got a spot in the AFC Champions League group stage. Therefore it means that Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya could not defend the title and a new club will have the chance to lift this trophy.
Al-Zawraa remains as the last Iraqi representative in Asian club competitions. They have some experience at these competitions. They reached the AFC Cup West Asian semi final in 2017, being eliminated in an all-Iraqi clash against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya. Al-Zawraa also played twice before at the AFC Champions League group stage in 2005 and 2007. In their last appearance at this stage, the Iraqi champions missed the spot for the knockout stage by two points.
This time, the campaign of Al-Nawaris, The Gulls, will be completely different. Al-Zawraa hosted their previous AFC Champions League matches in a neutral venue in Qatar, while this time they will host their match on Iraqi soil. Even though they will play at Karbala International Stadium, 100 kilometers away from their home in Baghdad, it will be the first AFC Champions League match in Iraq since October 2001.
Al-Zawraa will play against Al-Wasl of the UAE and two more teams that will qualify through the preliminary rounds. After Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya elimination, can Al-Zawraa bring new glory to Iraq?