Brazilian skipper Luciano Pereira scored a 15th-minute winner as Persian Gulf Pro League club Foolad Khuzestan edged Qatari outfit Al Gharafa 1-0 to secure a place in the last-16 round of the AFC Champions League.
The result, a third one-goal victory of the campaign for the southern Iranian side, kept Javad Nekounam’s men on top of the Group C table with 11 points – two clear of second-placed Emirati side Shabab Al Ahli, which walked away 2-1 winner over Ahal FC of Turkmenistan.
The top two will battle it out for the top spot of the group late on Tuesday but even a defeat will see the southern Iranian team progress to the knockouts as one of the three best runners-up in the West zone of the competition.
“We knew since day one that this would be a tough group. I’m so thrilled that we’re in the next round but we’re not done yet [in the competition],” Foolad manager Nekounam said in the post-match press conference.
“It was a really tough match. Al Gharafa gave it all as it was its last chance [for a knockout place]. We had planned to score early in the game to make them push forward and punish them on the counterattacks. We could have scored more if we had been more clinical,” added the ex-Iranian international midfielder.
Nekounam also lamented the Asian football governing body’s decision to hold the group phase in centralized venues across three weeks – a measure taken in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have to give credit to my players for playing in such circumstances. I played for years in the Asian football and I know how hard it is to play in this hot and muggy weather every three days. The hectic schedule will kill players and ruin the sport. I hope this will be the last time that the competition is held in this format,” Nekounam said.
Meanwhile, a Sajjad Shahbaz-Zadeh double, either side of a Khojiakbar Alijonov’s equalizer, saw Iranian side Sepahan beat Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan 2-1 in Group D to keep its chances alive of progress as a runner-up.
Shahbaz-Zadeh broke the deadlock in the 76th minute – nine minutes after coming off the bench – only to see his strike canceled out by Alijonov’s header three minutes later.
With Sepahan desperately looking for a winner, Shahbaz-Zadeh again came to the rescue, tapping in on a Reza Mirzaei’s low cross in the third minute of the stoppage time.
Qatar Stars League giant Al Duhail beat Saudi side Al Taawoun in a seven-goal thriller later in the night to seal the top spot of the group in the Saudi city of Buraidah.
Edmilson Junior and Almoez Ali scored in the final six minutes as Al Duhail bounced back from a first-half 3-1 deficit to win the game.
Al Taawoun and Sepahan are second and third in the group – equal on seven points but separated by the head-to-head result.
Sepahan will still have to beat Al Duhail on the final day and hope for Pakhtakor to avoid defeat against Al Taawoun to have a chance of going through.