Football: Al Hilal enter Azadi cauldron in Iran for ACL knockout opener
- Updated: May 17, 2015
May 17, 2015: Al Hilal will play the first leg of their AFC Champions League Round of 16 tie against Persepolis on Tuesday in front of a cauldron of noise at the Azadi Stadium, where the Tehran side have played in front of an average of 72,000 fans in this year.
Al Hilal, last year’s finalists and two-time Asian champions, sealed a return to the knockout stage as Group C winners following a 2-1 win over Qatar’s Al Sadd in the final round of group fixtures earlier this month, although the Saudi side will miss suspended striker Nassir Al Shamrani on Tuesday.
Al Hilal coach Giorgos Donis said: “Although we made some mistakes against Al Sadd, I have full confidence in my players and they will fix these mistakes. We showed good strength against Al Sadd and we hope that we can continue our good performances in the next game to come.”
Persepolis, the Group A runners-up, will look to continue their 100 per cent record at home this season in the AFC Champions League. In their last two home ties, they’ve beaten two-time Saudi champions Al Nassr and Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor in front of capacity 100,000 crowds.
Persepolis also beat local rivals Esteghlal 1-0 at home on Friday in their last match of the 2014-15 Iran Pro League, which earned Branko Ivankovic’s side an eighth-place finish. The reds have appeared in the Round of 16 in 2012 and 2009, but have yet to reach the quarter-finals in four previous AFC Champions League appearances.
“We were in the toughest group alongside the Saudi Arabian champions, Qatari champions and the best team in Uzbekistan,” said Ivankovic, who succeeded Hamid Derakhshan as Persepolis coach during the group stage. “We have the same chance against Al Hilal, who I believe are a better team than Al Nassr. I’m completely satisfied with my players’ performances so far and I’m proud of them.”
Also on Tuesday, 2011 winners Al Sadd and domestic league champions Lekhwiya, who successfully defended their title under Danish coach Michael Laudrup, face off in all-Qatari tie.
Former quarter-finalists Lekhwiya sealed top spot in Group A with a 3-1 win over Al Nassr in Riyadh which secured just their second appearance in the knockout stage, while Group C runners-up Al Sadd will be playing in the second phase of the competition for the fourth time.
In the east
In the east, K-League Classic champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will entertain Beijing Guoan, with Choi Kang-hee’s side hosting the Chinese Super League side in Jeonju in the first leg. Jeonbuk, who won the 2006 AFC Champions League title, secured their place in the Round of 16 as Group E runners-up after comfortably defeating Shandong Luneng 4-1 at Jeonju World Cup Stadium earlier this month.
Gregorio Manzano’s Beijing side topped Group G ahead of Suwon Samsung after sharing a 1-1 draw with the two-time Asian champions two weeks ago, although midfielder Piao Cheng is suspended for the first leg.
Also on the first day of knockout ties, Suwon, winners of the Asian Club Championship in both 2001 and 2002, entertain former semi-finalists Kashiwa Reysol from Japan.
Having qualified for the group stage via the playoffs, Kashiwa have advanced from the first phase in each of their three appearances in the AFC Champions League and reached the semi-finals in 2013. Suwon are returning to the knockout stage for the first time since 2011 when they were edged out in the semi-finals by eventual winners Al Sadd.
For more information, visit: www.the-afc.com/en/tournaments/clubs/afc-champions-league
Source: WSG (www.wsgworld.com); Editing by SportAsia