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2021 AFC Champions League (West): Six Starlets to watch

Kuala Lumpur: With the newly expanded AFC Champions League 2021 group stage just around the corner, picked six up and coming youngsters who could be set to break through in this year’s edition of the competition.

Some of these starlets are established players for their club sides and some have even appeared in previous AFC Champions League seasons, while several are just breaking into the starting XI, but those U23 players are all eyeing a milestone campaign over the next three weeks.

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Nasser Al Dawsari - Al Hilal SFC

A part of Al Hilal’s triumphant 2019 side, the 22-year-old central midfielder was largely utilised as a substitute en route to the two legged final, playing a total of one hour over five substitute appearances.

Since then, Al Dawsari has grown in status for the Saudi Pro League champions. Injuries to club captain Salman Al Faraj and fellow veteran Abdullah Otayf meant he was afforded more opportunities in the middle of the pitch and his performances earned him an international debut for Saudi Arabia, starting in a March friendly against Kuwait.

A left-footed player by nature, Al Hilal fans will surely remember his only goal thus far in the famous blue shirt - a deftly executed shot from inside the area after a smart cutback by teammate Bafetimbi Gomis. For Al Dawsari, excelling at the 2021 AFC Champions League will be the perfect base as he prepares to be part of the Saudi Arabia U23 set up headed for the Tokyo Olympics later in the year.

Ibrahim Bayesh - Air Force Club

Iraqi Premier League leaders Air Force Club had winger Ibrahim Bayesh to thank for reaching the AFC Champions League group stage for the first time since 2008. His low cross from the right late in the second half was converted by teammate Ayman Hussein bringing them level with UAE’s Al Wahda and taking the game to extra time then penalty shootouts which they won.

The youngster was part of the Air Force Club side that won the AFC Cup in 2018, the club’s third in a row in the competition at the time. In the 2018 final, Bayesh scored his side’s second goal against Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr FC, heading in from a corner on the hour mark.

Still just 21 years old, Bayesh is already an established Iraqi international and has been so since late 2019, featuring in every minute of every game bar one for his country under head coach Srecko Katanec.

Ibrokhimkhalil Yuldoshev - Pakhtakor

A Pakhtakor academy product, the left-back spent last season on loan at Bunyodkor and was ever present for them, participating for at least 45 minutes in each of the final 20 matches of the Uzbek Super League and managing a goal and an assist.

On his return to Pakhtakor this season, he has been firing on all cylinders, playing a crucial role in his side opening the season with five wins from five so far as well as scoring two goals - one of which was a deciding 87th minute winner in the opening day victory against FC Nasaf.

An AFC Champions League debut is in order for the Uzbek youngster, who has seven caps to his name although he is yet to feature in any competitive fixture for his country.

Mehdi Abdi Qara - Persepolis

Another starlet looking to build on a promising 2020 AFC Champions League, Abdi’s 42nd minute header against Al Nassr in the semi-final was voted as the fans’ best goal of the tournament - while his debut goal, a 90th minute effort in the 4-0 thumping of Sharjah FC was nominated for ‘The best last-minute goal’ of the competition.

His goal in the final may have come as just consolation as his side lost a second final in three years, but Abdi will take confidence from his run of goals, having only earned a starting spot after the suspension of starting forward Isa Alkasir.

While Abdi has not shown the same prolific streak in the Iran Pro League this season, delivering just two goals in 18 appearances, the 22-year-old will look to revitalise his Persepolis career in the 2021 AFC Champions League and his overall play could yet prove critical for last year’s runners-up.

Khalid Al Ghannam - Al Nassr

One of the more established club players on this list despite being just 20 years of age, Al Ghannam featured in Al Nassr’s run towards a heartbreaking semi-final exit on penalties against Persepolis in the 2020 AFC Champions League.

He marked his presence with a goal and three assists in eight appearances in the competition as former manager Rui Vitoria relied on his speed and tenacity on the left wing. His goal came against Al Sadd, whom they face again in Group D this time around, when he dribbled past Pedro Miguel before firing in from a tight angle to secure a draw for his side.

In the Saudi Pro League this season, Al Ghannam has been deployed on both wings by interim boss Alen Horvat, yielding four goals and an assist for his side who had a slumpy start to the season. It remains to be seen how incoming head coach Mano Menezes will utilise Al Ghannam in the 2021 AFC Champions League.

Mehdi Ghaedi - Esteghlal

Perhaps the most established name on this list, it is a testament to the talents of Mehdi Ghaedi that at the age of 22, he is already considered Esteghlal’s main man as they look to improve on last year’s Round-of-16 exit.

Although he was both the team’s most creative outlet with seven chances created and their biggest goal threat with seven shots on target taken in the 2020 AFC Champions League, the next challenge for the young attacker is to improve on his output of one goal and one assist.

Ghaedi’s performances in the Esteghlal shirt have already seen him receive two call-ups for Islamic Republic of Iran in 2020. He made his debut against Uzbekistan in October and a month later, he broke his international duck against Bosnia Herzegovina in just his second Team Melli appearance.

Poll ends at 20:00 (UTC+8) on April 14.

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