Persian Gulf Pro League clubs Sepahan and Foolad Khuzestan will be looking to build on their recent fine form when kicking off their campaigns at the AFC Champions League (ACL) on Thursday.
Sepahan will be walking into the Group D opener against Uzbek champion Pakhtakor in the Saudi city of Jeddah on the back of a massive 4-2 away victory over San’at Naft Abadan in the Iranian league.
The result was a fourth win in a run of eight unbeaten matches for Moharam Navidkia’s men, who have been lacking consistency throughout the season despite, according to many, delivering the best offensive football in the Iranian league.
Also in the group are newly crowned Qatar Emir Cup champion Al Duhail, which appointed former Argentine international Hernan Crespo as the manager in late March, and Saudi club Al Taawoun, which also sees a new head coach on the bench in Dutchman John van den Brom after parting ways with Portuguese coach Jose Manuel Gomes following a poor run of results in the domestic competitions.
Sepahan will face Al Duhail on Sunday before taking on Al Taawoun on April 15.
All fixtures in five West zone groups of the competition will be played in a double round-robin format across three weeks in four Saudi cities after the Asian football governing body decided to hold the group phase in centralized venues due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile, Javad Nekounam’s Foolad will be hoping to take its domestic momentum into the continental campaign when squaring off against Qatar Stars League’s Al Gharafa – coached by ex-Esteghlal’s Italian boss Andrea Stramaccioni – in Jeddah in Group C, which also features Emirati outfit Shabab Al Ahli Dubai and debutant Ahal FC of Turkmenistan.
A 2-0 victory of Nassaji Mazandaran on Friday was the third in a row for Foolad, helping the Southern Iranian club, which has fallen to a defeat only once in the previous eight outings, move up to fourth in the Iranian league.
Nekounam will be hoping the signing of former Athletic Bilbao winger Ibai Gomez, who could make his debut for the Iranian Hazfi Cup champion on Thursday, will boost his side’s chances of progressing beyond the group stage for the first time since 2014, when Foolad’s Asian adventure finished in the round of 16.
Foolad will go head-to-head with Shabab Al Ahli and its Iranian duo Ahmad Nourollahi and Mehdi Qayedi on Sunday and then meet Ahal FC next Thursday.
Five group winners in the West region will be joined by three best runners-up in the last-16 round.
This year’s Asian elite clubs competition will be attended by 40 teams for the first time.
Persian Gulf Pro League defending champion Persepolis and its archrival Esteghlal were to represent Iran at the event before the Tehran-based giants were declared ineligible to participate by the AFC due to failure in meeting all of the mandatory criteria required under the AFC Club Licensing Regulations.