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Analysis: New-look Al Duhail too good for Esteghlal

Friday, March 8, 2019
Duhail cover

Doha: Rui Faria’s first experience of the AFC Champions League went smoothly as the long-serving Jose Mourinho assistant steered Qatar’s Al Duhail to a seamless 3-0 triumph over Esteghlal.

Despite a slow start, Al Duhail got the job done in the second half as goals from Medhi Benatia, Youssef El Arabi and substitute Ali Afif ensured the absence of 2019 Asian Cup MVP Almoez Ali was not too keenly felt.

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Retention first

Al Duhail set up in a 3-4-3 formation. With Karim Boudiaf and Luiz Junior occupying the two central midfield spots, flanked by Murad Naji and Sultan Al Brake who were deployed as wing-backs. Star signing Medhi Benatia anchored the three-man defence with Bassam Al Rawi and Ahmed Yasser either side of him.

Faria’s philosophy centred around ball retention first, as evidenced by the fact his back-three alongside Boudiaf and Junior all completed at least 84% of their +50 attempted passes.

Boudiaf was key to moving the ball from defence to midfield as the Qatari international exchanged 13 passes with Benatia, while Junior performed the task of linking midfield to attack. His top two passing combinations were with Boudiaf (gray) and Shoya Nakajima (blue) - 12 passes each.

Double role for Nakajima

The Qatari side’s front three lined up with goal scorer Youssef El Arabi centrally, Edmilson on the right and Nakajima on the left. But with the wing-backs providing the width, the wide forwards had a different role to play.

While El Arabi looked for pockets of space in the final third and Edmilson kept centre-backs Pejman Montazeri and Mohammed Daneshgar occupied, Nakajima dropped deep into midfield.

The Japanese international was at the heart of every attacking move, dribbling from deep and spraying through passes to unlock the defence. Despite nominally starting as a wide forward, Nakajima was the side’s primary playmaker as his heatmap (above) shows. 

Lonely night for Mensha

Nigerian striker Godwin Mensha crossed the Tehran divide, swapping Persepolis for Esteghlal in the summer, having scored three goals and assisted one to help his former club reach the 2018 AFC Champions League final.

His continental debut in the Blue shirt was not a happy one against Al Duhail’s solid defence. Over the 2018 campaign Mensha averaged one shot every 29 minutes, but on Tuesday he was restricted to one shot all night.

Having to play as the lone forward surrounded by three centre-back and with little support from Estaghlal’s midfield. Mensha was so isolated up front that his 57th minute shot that ended up in row Z was one of only two touches in the opposition’s box he mustered all game.

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