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AFC Champions League (West): 5 Memorable Play-offs

Kuala Lumpur: Just over four months since Ulsan Hyundai were crowned champions of Asia, the AFC Champions League is set to return to action on Wednesday as eight teams from West Asia attempt to navigate the playoff round into the 2021 group stage.

As the long journey towards a new continental champion being crowned begins, looks back at some of the most memorable playoff matches from the West over the years.

From dramatic penalty shootouts involving star names to late drama and stunning comebacks, there's plenty to whet your appetite as Asia's premier club competition draws ever nearer.

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Al Wahda (UAE) 4-4 Al Sadd (QAT)
(Al Sadd won 5-4 on penalties)
Al Nahyan Stadium, Abu Dhabi
February 17, 2015

In 2011, Al Sadd had become the first, and to date only, side to win the AFC Champions League after coming through the playoff rounds. Four years later they were attempting to repeat their feat ahead of the clash with the United Arab Emirates' Al Wahda.

With the contest at 2-2 and in stoppage time, Mohamed Al Shehhi put the hosts in front, only for Khalfan Ibrahim to level in the seventh minute of added time to force extra time, where he netted his hat-trick to put Al Sadd in front. But the scoring was not over as UAE legend Ismail Matar made it 4-4 by curling home a delightful free-kick to take the game to penalties.

The shootout was equally close when, after the first nine players had all scored, Al Wahda's Hussain Fadhel saw his effort saved by Saad Al Sheeb as Al Sadd sealed a place in the group stage following an eight-goal thriller. The Qatari side's run eventually came to an end in the Round of 16.

Esteghlal (IRN) 0-0 Al Sadd (QAT)
(Esteghlal won 4-3 on penalties)
Azadi Stadium, Tehran
February 7, 2017

Al Sadd have plenty of history in the playoff rounds. Sandwiched in between the aforementioned classic against Al Wahda and a tense affair against Esteghlal in 2017, they were defeated by the UAE's Al Jazira, also on penalties, when Xavi Hernandez was among those to fail from the spot as the FIFA World Cup winner missed out on a first appearance in the group stage.

Just under 75,000 turned out at Azadi Stadium the following year as the Spaniard got his first taste of the Iranian passion for football. However, after the action on the pitch did not reach the heights the bumper attendance had hoped for, there would again be penalty drama as, for the third time in three years, Al Sadd's fate would be decided from the spot.

This time Xavi was successful from 12 yards but Ibrahim Majid and Mohammed Kasola were not, allowing Khosro Heydari to confidently dispatch his penalty and send the blue half of Tehran in raptures as they returned to the competition proper.

Al Rayyan (QAT) 3-1 Saipa (IRN)
Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, Doha
February 19, 2019

Playoff: Al Rayyan SC vs Saipa

Bidding to reach the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2008, when they had exited to a Rivaldo-inspired Bunyodkor, IR Iran's Saipa travelled to Doha to face Al Rayyan in 2019, with Iranian legend Ali Daei at the helm.

The visitors got off to the perfect start as Arman Ramezani put them in front on three minutes but Gelmin Rivas levelled as the half hour approached and, ultimately, Iranian hearts were broken in the dying moments.

As extra time approached, Rodrigo Tabata sent in an inviting free-kick which veteran Sebastian Soria glanced home, and Rivas wrapped up proceedings just a minute later to send Al Rayyan through.

Al Gharafa (QAT) 2-3 Zobahan (IRN)
Thani bin Jassim Stadium, Doha
February 19, 2019

Playoff: Al Gharafa SC vs Zobahan FC

Another dramatic affair between Qatar and Iran took place on exactly the same date as Al Gharafa and Zobahan went head to head in a clash that was the proverbial game of two halves.

The hosts were two up and cruising into the group stage by half-time following goals from Ahmed Alaaeldin and Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi, but when Christian Osaguona pulled one back shortly after the interval, Al Gharafa's nerves began to jangle.

Zobahan then equalised through Amir Arsalan Motahari just after the hour to set up a grandstand final 30 minutes, and it was the visitors who booked their ticket to the group stage after Mohammad Nejadmehdi swiveled and fired into the back of the net with 10 minutes remaining.

Al Ahli Saudi (KSA) 1-0 FC Istiklol (TJK)
King Abdullah Sports City, Jeddah
January 28, 2020

#ACL2020 - Playoffs: Al Ahli Saudi FC 1-0 FC Istiklol

Two-time AFC Cup runners-up FC Istiklol were aiming to write a new leaf in Tajikistan footballing history by becoming the first team from the Central Asian country to reach the AFC Champions League group stage. In their way in early 2020 stood Jeddah giants Al Ahli Saudi.

While the game was by no means a classic, Istiklol more than held their own against their more illustrious opponents and almost took the lead through Manuchehr Dzhalilov midway through the second half as an upset began to look a possibility. But, as the clock ticked towards extra time, disaster struck for the visitors.

Viktor Svezhov saw red for a foul in the box and Youcef Belaili then dispatched from the spot to spare Al Ahli's blushes with a late winner. Istiklol, however, will make their debut in the 2021 edition as the Dushanbe side gained automatic qualification for the first time.

Poll ends at 16:00 (UTC+8) on April 7.

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