1248 GMT May 06, 2021
Iranian clubs will be looking for a flying start to their campaigns at the group phase of the new AFC Champions League (ACL) season.
All fixtures of each group at the Asian elite clubs’ competition – expanded to 40 teams – will be played in a single venue due to the coronavirus restrictions adopted by the Asian football governing body.
A congested schedule will see West Zone teams complete their group fixtures in 16 days.
On Wednesday, the Hazfi Cup champion Tractor, on its return to the continental stage, will take on last season’s quarterfinalist Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan in Group B at the Sharjah Stadium in the UAE.
The Air Force Club of Iraq, which beat Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda in the playoffs, and Emirati club Sharjah are the other two teams in the group.
In Group D, Foolad Khuzestan will begin its group adventure with a massive game against Qatari giant Al Sadd at Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium in Saudi Arabia, also on Wednesday.
The confidence is high for Javad Nekounam’s men heading into the match after the southern Iranian club cruised past the UAE’s Al Ain by four goals on Saturday to book a place in the group.
Al Sadd, meanwhile, has been enjoying a fine form all season as a 3-0 victory over Qatar SC on Friday saw Xavi’s team finish the Qatar Stars League season without a single defeat, lifting the trophy with 19 wins in 22 outings.
Foolad will also be battling the 2020 semifinalist Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia and Al Wehdat – the first-ever Jordanian club in the group stage – for a place in the knockouts.
Esteghlal – the most decorated Iranian club in the competition with two trophies – will be hoping to improve on last season’s round-of-16 exit at the hands of Pakhtakor when starting its campaign against Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli on Friday in probably the most entertaining group of the West Zone, which also features Qatar’s Al Duhail and Iraqi powerhouse Al Shorta.
The Tehran-based Blues have fond memories of their last meeting with the Saudi side as they beat Al Ahli 3-0 on the last day of the group games in 2020 – courtesy of goals by frontline duo Mehdi Qayedi and Cheick Diabaté either side of a strike by midfielder Ali Karimi, now playing for Al Duhail.
The King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will be the host venue for all Group C matches.
Esteghlal’s archrival Persepolis will get its group fixtures underway on Wednesday, playing the UAE’s Al Wahda in Group E at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa, India.
The two-time Asian runner-up in the previous three editions, will also meet up with former center-back Shoja Khalilzadeh, who left the Reds in October to join Qatar’s Al Rayyan, which sees former French international Laurent Blanc on its bench as the head coach.
The host FC Goa will be considered the underdog in the group.
The winners of each group and the three best runners-up from each region will advance to the last-16 round, played through single-legged ties from September 13 to 15.