Round of 16 - West: 5 Things To Look Out For
Amman: The 2019 AFC Champions League returns to action in the West at the beginning of the week with four eagerly awaited Round of 16 ties taking place on Monday and Tuesday.
A legend moving into the hot seat, a strong Saudi presence and plenty of new arrivals are among the talking points, so join the-AFC.com as we pick out five things to look out for.
See also :
1. Xavi in the dugout
When Spanish FIFA World Cup winner Xavi arrived in Qatar in mid-2015 following a trophy-laden career with Barcelona, it was undoubtedly a major coup for the club, but few could have imagined that more than four years later he would still be in Doha.
After two defeats in the AFC Champions League play-off rounds, Xavi finally graced Asia’s biggest club competition in 2018 and had it not been for a world class save from Persepolis’ Alireza Beiranvand in front of 100,000 fans at Azadi Stadium, he would have headed them into a first final since 2011.
Domestically, the midfielder picked up a number of cups before skippering the side to their first Qatar Stars League title in six years earlier in 2019. Three more goals in the 2019 AFC Champions League group stage were proof Xavi was still going strong but, at 39, the Spaniard decided it was time to hang up his boots.
But no sooner had he done so, Al Sadd announced that he was taking over the head coach role from Jesualdo Ferreira. His first test comes in the form of Doha rivals Al Duhail on Tuesday and there will be plenty of intrigue as to whether one of the greatest players of his generation will develop into one of the finest managers.
2. The Saudi quartet
After the introduction of the Round of 16 in 2009, it was not uncommon to see four sides from one nation in the knockout rounds, but not since Korea Republic managed the feat in 2015 have all four representatives from the same country progressed from the group stage. Until now.
With Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Nassr all qualifying for the last 16, Saudi Arabia boasts a strong presence in the knockout rounds. And, with the Round of 16 having already been completed in the East, a third of all remaining sides in the tournament are from the Gulf state.
ما أظنك ناسيا 🙀💛💙— عـ،٩٦:٣٧ #بطل_الدوري_الاقوى (@ali1996_iix) February 19, 2019
As Al Hilal face off against Al Ahli, at least one Saudi team will be involved in the quarter-finals, although should Al Ittihad overcome Zobahan and Al Nassr defeat Al Wahda, then a trio of clubs will start to dream of Continental glory.
Not since Al Ittihad retained the title in 2005 has a Saudi club lifted the AFC Champions League trophy, but all four impressed in the group stage and, should they continue their form, the chances of ending a barren run will increase dramatically.
3. Zobahan flying the Iranian flag
Among the most memorable moments of the previous two AFC Champions Leagues have been the sight of a full Azadi Stadium as Esteghlal and, most notably, Persepolis have enjoyed runs into the latter stages of the tournament. This year, however, the Tehran giants disappointed and fell at the group stage.
That left Zobahan, the Isfahan side who rarely grab the headlines yet find themselves in the knockout rounds for the third time in four years, as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sole representatives. The Group A winners, perhaps surprisingly, are also the only unbeaten side in the 2019 tournament.
View this post on Instagram
🐊رسیدن به جمع شانزده تیم برتر آسیا آرزوی بسیاری از تیمهاست و ما هم اکنون برای چندمین بار اینجا هستیم. از امروز با همه وجود میجنگیم و تا اونجایی که بتونیم حقمون را از رویامون میگیریم. نمی دونیم چه سرنوشتی در رقابت با تیمهای متمول آسیا منتظر ماست ولی این رو میدونیم که هیچ چیز برای موفقیت کم نخواهیم گذاشت. به عنوان تنها نماینده ایران، کمی حمایت بیشتر از مسوولین، نگاه ایران شمول تر و غیررنگی تر از برخی رسانه ها و دعای خیر تک تک مردم مطالبه ماست. از مورد آخر اطمینان کامل داریم که همچون همیشه دل ایران به عشق فرزندانش میتپد و دعای ایرانیان را به عنوان مهمترین سرمایه خود در چمدان داریم، امیدواریم دو عنصر دیگر هم وظیفه شناس تر کنار ذوب آهن باشند و به دور از اشتباهات پیشین همچون بی توجهی در درج اخبار و زیرنویس، حامی واقعی دل و خواست مردم باشند... #اصفهان_حالا_حالا_آسیایی_است👇 #سبز_سبزم_ریشه_دارم #قرارمون_یادت_نره @theafchub @theafchub_ir @ehsanabedi_graphic
The 2010 runners-up failed to make it beyond the last 16 in 2016 and 2018 yet, should they manage to pick up where they left off before the end of their domestic season, Alireza Mansourian’s team will be confident they can navigate their way past Al Ittihad, with the first leg taking place on Monday.
Having endured a terrible start to the 2018-19 Iranian Pro League, Zobahan’s form picked up at the beginning of the year as they moved from the relegation zone to the top six. They have lost just twice in 23 matches in 2019 – maintain that form and Iran’s bid for that elusive first AFC Champions League title could end.
4. A new-look Al Duhail
When Al Duhail won a record-equaling nine AFC Champions League games in a row last year, there was talk of the Doha side becoming only the second Qatari team to lift the title. Their run was halted by Persepolis in the second leg of the quarter-finals, but they returned this year bolstered by new arrivals.
Japan’s Shoya Nakajima added flair and the acquisition of Moroccan defender Medhi Benatia from Juventus brought experience at the back. Youssef El Arabi continued to find the back of the net and, although Korean midfielder Nam Tae-hee departed for Al Sadd, there was plenty of buzz about the side.
View this post on Instagram
قامت إدارة النادي عند السابعة من مساء اليوم بتقديم محترف الفريق الجديد المحترف العراقي مهند علي لوسائل الاعلام وسط حضور اعلامي كبير وتواجد مدرب الفريق روي فاريا والمدير الرياضي فرج المري الذي قال في بداية المؤتمر الصحفي ان الدحيل تعود دائما على التعاقد مع لاعبين مميزين والان النادي نجح في التعاقد مع نجم عراقي كبير يمثل مستقبل الكرة العراقية وهو لاعب موهوب وصاحب امكانيات معروفة للجميع وسيشكل اضافة جيدة للنادي في الفترة القادمة
However, the summer months brought upheaval as the prolific El Arabi joined Olympiacos and Nakajima moved to Porto. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as Tunisian international Youssef Msakni has returned from a loan spell in Belgium, while promising Iraqi striker Mohanad Ali is the man tasked with filling El Arabi’s boots.
Up against domestic rivals Al Sadd on Tuesday, Rui Faria’s side’s attacking threat could include Ali, Msakni, the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 top scorer Almoez Ali and Belgian Edmilson Junior. They may have lost key personnel, but should Al Duhail click up front then they will remain a frightening prospect for opposition defences.
5. Ivankovic at the Al Ahli helm
Branko Ivankovic performed wonders at Persepolis, with the Croatian leading them to three successive Iranian Pro League titles, a Hazfi Cup and the 2018 AFC Champions League final as he well and truly restored the glory days to a sleeping giant.
When the 65-year-old stepped down in June, Persepolis’ loss was Al Ahli’s gain as Ivankovic signed on the dotted line in Jeddah. While his new side’s year has been far from disastrous, a fourth-place finish in the Saudi Pro League and three defeats in the group stage, leave room for improvement.
At Persepolis, Ivankovic created a defence that was hard to break down, something he will likely look to do at Al Ahli, who have not kept a clean sheet since Matchday One. Perhaps an even bigger task, however, is easing the burden on Omar Al Soma, the Syrian striker who has scored six of their seven goals so far.
A home tie against domestic rivals Al Hilal on Tuesday throws Ivankovic in at the deep end, but the Croat is a shrewd operator and has reached the semi-finals on the Continent in each of the past two years. It's hard to argue that he doesn’t have the tactical nous to make it three in a row.
Recommended Stories :