Three Persian Gulf Pro League clubs will be back in AFC Champions League action next week, when places at the quarterfinals of the competition will be at stake.
Esteghlal will square off against Al Hilal at the neutral venue of Al Wasl Stadium in Dubai on Monday; while the other Iran-Saudi encounter of the last-16 round sees Tractor take on Al Nassr at Doha’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium the following night.
Also on Tuesday, Esteghlal’s archrival Persepolis will visit Dushanbe’s Central Republican Stadium to play the surprise package of this season, Istiklol of Tajikistan.
Having finished atop the so-called ‘Group of Death’ in April, Esteghlal will step into the game against Al Hilal without some key figures that led the club to a successful group campaign.
Malian striker Cheick Diabate has left the Tehran-based giant, with Blues prodigy Mehdi Qayedi joining Emirati club Shabab Al Ahli.
Holding midfielder Masoud Rigi also signed for Sepahan, while goalkeeper Rashid Mazaheri, as well as left-back Mehdi Naderi and midfielder Farshid Esmaeili have parted ways with Esteghlal.
However, former Shahr Khodro striker Amin Qasseminejad, Zobeir Niknafs, an ex-midfielder of Foolad Khuzestan, and new defenders Aref Aqasi and Ja’far Salmani could make their first appearance for the club.
Meanwhile, Tractor, the only unbeaten team of the group stage, will face a daunting task against Al Nassr as the northwestern Iranian side will only have 16 players at its disposal, due to injuries, positive COVID-19 tests, and a FIFA transfer ban.
The Tabriz-based club, which will see Firouz Karimi back on the bench in the space of 45 days, had a request for postponement of the game rejected by the AFC, but will hope to build on a brave display in the group stage, which saw it progress as one the best three runners-up in the West Zone.
Persepolis, two-time losing finalist in the previous three editions, will also be without three key players who helped the Reds to a fifth successive domestic league title.
Ahmad Nourollahi, probably the best player of the Iranian league last season, has joined Qayedi at Shabab Al Ahli, while international center-back Hossein Kan’anizadegan left for Qatar’s Al Ahli.
Striker Shahriar Moghanlou, who joined Persepolis on loan midway through last season, also cut his spell with the Reds short to join Sepahan.
New signing Hamed Pakdel will hope to fill in for Moghanlou, with Reza Assadi, Reza Dehqani, Ali Nemati, and Alireza Ebrahimi all in line for debuts in the Reds outfit against Istiklol.
Persepolis dominated Group E with 15 points – the highest tally in the West Zone groups – but Tuesday’s game against the Tajik newcomers could still prove to be a tricky one for Yahya Golmohammadi’s men.
Istiklol stole the headlines in April with a 4-1 rout of Al Hilal in Riyadh en route to a top-spot finish in Group A, which also featured Shabab Al Ahli, and Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC.