Kuala Lumpur: With the 2018 AFC Champions League quarter-finals just over a month away, we look at seven players whose form in the competition can drive them to excel in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in January.
Eight of Asia's biggest club sides are battling for the 2018 AFC Champions League title, and amongst their ranks are some top players hoping to impress their national team managers as we approach the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019.
Some have already shown glimpses of their talents at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, while others are dreaming of one last grand showing before hanging their boots. So let's look at some of the biggest AFC Asian Cup hopefuls featuring in August's AFC Champions League quarter-finals.
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Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis and IR Iran)
The 25-year-old was one of the stars of Team Melli’s 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign, saving a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo and impressing throughout. At Persepolis, Beiranvand has kept five clean sheets, more than any other goalkeeper in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
The quarter-finals throw a big challenge for the goalkeeper as his Persepolis side face Qatar’s Al Duhail, who have been an unstoppable attacking force this season, bagging 21 goals in the continental competition, the highest amongst West Asian teams and only second to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ 26.
The 194cm tall custodian’s performances for club and country mean he is set for a starting role in January as Carlos Queiroz’s IR Iran look to lift their first AFC Asian Cup title since 1976. Beiranvand and co start their continental campaign on January 7 against Yemen before facing Vietnam and Iraq in Group D.
Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers and Japan)
Another man who made an impression in Russia over the summer is centre-back Gen Shoji who was a key cog in the Japan side that reached the World Cup round of 16 before bowing out to eventual bronze medallists Belgium.
Shoji made 41 clearances in his six AFC Champions League appearances for Kashima Antlers, among the highest in the competition to help his side navigate the group stage with just six goals conceded, no other team in East Asia conceded less.
Kashima Antlers face the challenge of Tianjin Quanjian as they attempt to reach the AFC Champions League semi-final for the first time in their history. Shoji will be hoping a historic achievement for his club will help his chances of securing a starting spot for the Samurai Blue whose pursuit of a fifth continental title sees them pitted against Uzbekistan, Oman and Turkmenistan in Group F.
Hassan Al Haydos (Al Sadd and Qatar)
The 2011 AFC Champions League winner has grown into one of the most influential players for club and country. The 27-year-old has been at Al Sadd since the age of eight and has won two league titles and a FIFA Club World Cup bronze medal alongside the 2011 continental trophy.
Al Haydos contributed six key passes and one assist in this year’s AFC Champions League as Al Sadd finished second in Group C then overcame Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in the round of 16 with a 4-3 aggregate win.
Alongside club teammates Akram Afif and Ali Asad, Al Haydos is expected to form the spine of Qatar’s attacking midfield in neighbouring UAE in January, where they will be hoping to progress past the quarter-finals for the first time in their history. The start will be against Lebanon on January 9, followed by DPR Korea then Saudi Arabia in Group E.
Zhao Xuri (Tianjin Quanjian and China PR)
The veteran midfielder boasts an impressive minutes-per-goal ratio of 157 despite playing in a deep role. The two-time AFC Champions League winner with Guangzhou Evergrande joined Tianjin in 2016 and has since become an indispensable member of their starting XI.
Zhao’s experience continues to be crucial for a Tianjin side playing in the AFC Champions League for the first time in their history. And with over 70 caps to his name, he will be equally important for China PR in January’s AFC Asian Cup.
Having made his international debut in 2003, Zhao went on to appear in two editions of the AFC Asian Cup; 2007 and 2011, before missing on the 2015 edition in Australia. At 32, UAE 2019 may well be his last chance to represent China PR in the continental competition, and if his club form is anything to go by, we could see his best in January.
Rouzbeh Chesmi (Esteghlal and IR Iran)
After just one match and a clean sheet, Cheshmi’s World Cup campaign was ended prematurely with a muscle injury to the disappointment of the 24-year-old defender who had recorded the team’s best pass completion rate (94% ) in his only outing in Russia 2018 against Morocco.
Two months later, Cheshmi’s attention turns to the AFC Champions League as he looks to help his Esteghlal side to the semi-finals for the second time after 2013. The Iranian giants had emerged from the group stage unbeaten and recorded three clean sheets in the process with Cheshmi starting all but one of their six group games.
Cheshmi’s replacement in the World Cup, Majid Hosseini, has impressed, but the Esteghlal defender’s versatility means a starting spot in UAE 2019 is a strong possibility and a strong showing in the two quarter-finals can further cement his status as one of Team Melli’s key defensive assets at the AFC Asian Cup.
Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Korea Republic)
Right-back Lee was arguably Korea Republic’s best player in Russia 2018, putting in impressive performances both in defence and attack. And while the Taeguk Warriors have failed to advance past the group stage, they left a good impression after defeating world champions Germany in a game where Lee showed his true qualities.
An AFC Champions League winner with Ulsan Hyundai in 2012, Lee joined Jeonbuk in February 2017, just three months after they were crowned Asian Champions for the second time in their history. This term, the 32-year-old has contributed an assist and 12 key passes as Jeonbuk attempt to become the first side to win the competition three times.
A late bloomer, Lee only made his international debut in 2013 at the age of 27, and was not part of the Korea Republic squad that reached the AFC Asian Cup final in Australia in 2015, so UAE 2019 could be his only chance to leave a mark in the continental tournament with his nation.
Almoez Ali (Al Duhail and Qatar)
When it was announced that Al Duhail captain and talisman Youssef Msekni will be sidelined for a few months with an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury back in April, many feared the worst for the Qatari side, but then Almoez Ali stepped up.
Starting seven of Al Duhail’s eight-match winning streak in this year’s AFC Champions League, Ali took on a more attacking role in Msekni’s absence and delivered a goal and four assists as the Qatari champions swept aside their Group B opponents.
One of the stars of the Qatar side that were crowned U-19 Asian Champions in Myanmar in 2014, Ali made the step up to the senior team alongside many members of that team, and with his current club form, he will be an important asset for coach Felix Sanchez come January 2019.