Final 1st Leg – Preview: Kashima Antlers v Persepolis
Kashima: Japan’s Kashima Antlers and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Persepolis will appear in the AFC Champions League final for the first time when they face off in the first leg of the showpiece event at Kashima Soccer Stadium on Saturday.
Both sides had narrow wins in the semi-finals just under two weeks ago as Kashima edged past Korea Republic’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings 6-5 on aggregate and Persepolis saw off Qatar’s Al Sadd 2-1 over two legs.
The game will be the first time either team has met opposition from the other side of the continent in the competition, with Kashima looking to make it back-to-back wins for Japan and Persepolis seeking a first title for Iran.
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Since 2008, Kashima had appeared in six editions of the AFC Champions League prior to the current campaign and had advanced to the knockout rounds five times, but the J.League side had never managed to progress from a knockout phase game.
But, after qualifying for the last 16 as Group H runners-up behind Suwon, Kashima ousted a star-studded Shanghai SIPG side 4-3 on aggregate, before easing past another Chinese team in Tianjin Quanjian 5-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.
Go Oiwa’s side got off to the worst possible start when they were again faced with Suwon in the semi-finals but, after conceding two early goals in the first leg, they recovered to win 3-2 following Atsuto Uchida’s stoppage-time strike.
Kashima then fell 3-1 behind in the return meeting, before goals from Daigo Nishi and Serginho secured a place in the final for the first time. They go into arguably the biggest match of their history on the back of a 1-0 win over Cerezo Osaka in the J.League on Wednesday.
Serginho signed prior to the quarter-finals and has scored in all four of his AFC Champions League games since his arrival, meaning the Brazilian forward has leapt to the top of Kashima’s scoring charts.
Elsewhere, young striker Yuma Suzuki will likely keep the Persepolis backline busy with his industry, while at the other end of the pitch, reliable centre-back Gen Shoji will marshall the defence with authority.
Like Kashima, Persepolis struggled to impose themselves in the early years of the AFC Champions League but reached the semi-finals for the first time in 2017 before defeat to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.
The Tehran side returned to put in an even better performance this year, though, topping Group C ahead of Al Sadd, before claiming a dramatic late victory against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Jazira after a 2-1 home win saw them advance on away goals following a 4-4 aggregate draw.
Qatar’s Al Duhail, who had won all eight of their games, awaited in the quarter-finals and made it nine in a row following the first leg in Doha, but Persepolis won 3-1 at Azadi Stadium after a stunning second-half fightback to progress to successive semi-finals.
Ali Alipour’s late penalty secured a smash-and-grab 1-0 win in the first leg of the last four clash with Al Sadd and, a goal down in the reverse fixture, Siamac Nemati levelled after the interval to ultimately seal a place in the final. Branko Ivankovic’s side then headed to Japan on the back of a 1-1 Iranian Pro League draw against Saipa last Saturday.
With five goals to his name, Alipour is his team’s top marksman and his pace on the break will pose a threat to Kashima, as he showed in the previous round against Al Sadd. The striker has scored in two of his three away games in the knockout stage.
Goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand grabbed global headlines after a superb FIFA World Cup and, as the last line of defence, will be looking to again shine on the biggest stage. In front of him is Seyed Jalal Hosseini, the veteran Persepolis captain who may view the final as his last chance of continental glory.
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