Persepolis: Azadi roar powers comeback kings
Tehran: Persepolis will start the second leg of the AFC Champions League final on Saturday 2-0 down to Japan’s Kashima Antlers and the Islamic Republic of Iran club have a mountain to climb at Azadi Stadium if they are to win the competition for the first time.
But overcoming the odds is something Branko Ivankovic’s team have managed to do time and again in the knockout rounds and, going by their previous performances, Persepolis will be confident that they can still write their name into the history books.
No side have overhauled a two-goal first-leg deficit in the final since Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad recovered from losing 3-1 to Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2004 to win the return meeting 5-0 and be crowned champions. Azadi Stadium, though, brings out the best in the Iranian giants and this final is far from over.
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After advancing to the Round of 16 for the second year in a row, Persepolis conceded in the 96th minute to lose 3-2 away at the United Arab Emirates’ Al Jazira and, at 1-1 in the reverse fixture, were heading for the exit door.
Spurred on by a capacity crowd, defender Seyed Jalal Hosseini showed a striker’s instinct to fire home in the 89th minute, with the captain’s goal sparking joyous celebrations all around as a place in the last eight was secured at the death.
“It was a difficult match and we played against a very professional side. I want to thank God that we defeated them and I also thank our fans. I hope we can keep going,” reflected Hosseini.
Next up were Qatar’s Al Duhail, who had won all eight of their matches prior to the first leg of the quarter-finals, and made it nine as a 1-0 victory in Doha equalled the competition’s longest winning run. Shortly after the 30-minute mark in Tehran, they added another. What followed was one of the stories of the tournament.
Skipper Hosseini began the comeback as the hour approached before a three-minute spell saw Sultan Al Brake put into his own net and Godwin Mensha coolly dispatch the winner as, incredibly, the hosts shattered Al Duhail’s 10-in-a-row aspirations to progress in dramatic fashion.
“We are winners; Persepolis are a team with a winning mentality. Our fans were a source of strength for us, they pushed us forward even when we went behind and [always] make Azadi a difficult place for opponents to come to. I would like to thank them,” said midfielder Bashar Resan.
While Persepolis sealed a superb 1-0 away victory against Qatar’s Al Sadd in the first leg of the semi-final, they again faced adversity when falling behind to Baghdad Bounedjah’s strike early in the second leg.
For a moment, there was an eerie silence around Azadi Stadium. But only for a moment. The capacity crowd were back in full voice almost immediately and Siamak Nemati would send them into raptures by volleying home the equaliser just after half-time.
The game, though, remained on a knife edge as a goal for the Qatari side would have left the hosts needing two. It didn’t arrive, with goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand pulling off a remarkable save to deny Xavi with five minutes remaining as Persepolis won 2-1 on aggregate.
“We have had matches with a similar atmosphere but this one was something different. We are used to getting amazing support from these fans, but even we were surprised, and it must have been horrible for Al Sadd,” admitted Nemati.
The team spirit and a never-say-die attitude have been there for all to see in the 2018 AFC Champions League, and there is a common theme that all three players spoke of: the Azadi Stadium support.
With the official capacity just over 78,000, the second leg of the final will almost certainly record the biggest crowd ever at the showpiece event. Kashima may have the nice cushion of a two-goal lead, but the J.League side will enter a cauldron of noise on Saturday in the knowledge that their hosts will fight to the very last.
“We promise that we won’t let our fans go back home sad after the second leg. I hope they will fill the stadium again from hours before the kick off. I ask them to give us support and energy from now and I hope something special will happen,” said Beiranvand.
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