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AFC Champions League (West): Four defensive players to watch in the quarter-finals

Doha: As the 2020 AFC Champions League (West) enters crunch time with four teams contesting for one place in the final, looks at four defensive players whose presence could make the difference for their sides at the next stage.

The quarter-finals draw, conducted in Doha on Monday, produced two tasty encounters with Group B winners Pakhtakor facing Group C winners Persepolis FC, while the other game features a clash of fellow Saudi heavyweights Al Nassr and Al Ahli Saudi FC.

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Sultan Al Ghannam (Al Nassr)

With Al Ghannam playing a key part at right-back, Al Nassr cruised to the top of Group D then navigated a Round of 16 match against compatriots Al Taawoun FC, conceding just one goal since the resumption of the competition in Qatar.

Hailed as one of the finest players in his position in Saudi Arabia, the 26-year-old continues to rise in profile since his big move from Al Faisaly to Al Nassr in 2018, helping his club to the 2018-19 Saudi Pro League title then back-to-back AFC Champions League quarter-final qualifications.

Al Ghannam’s defensive work is highlighted by his 15 interceptions, a number only bettered by Al Ain’s Tsukasa Shiotani’s 17, while his attacking contribution is on par with those in more attacking roles. No player has assisted more goals in the 2020 AFC Champions League than Al Ghannam’s three. He also tops defenders for crosses from open play (4).

Lucas Lima (Al Ahli Saudi FC)

Al Ahli are appearing in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals for the fifth time in their history, more than any of the other three teams present at this stage, and a big part of their success in recent years comes down to their intelligent recruitment. Left-back Lima stands out as a prime example.

After three years at French side Nantes, Lima swapped Brittany for Jeddah in 2019 and is gradually growing in influence at Al Ahli with the defender helping his side’s cause at the 2020 AFC Champions League by scoring one of their penalties in the 4-3 shootout win over Shabab Al Ahli Dubai in the Round of 16.

Lima won more duels (34) than any other Al Ahli player, but his contribution is not limited to the defensive side of the game. The Brazilian delivered more than twice as many crosses from open play (15) than the next Al Ahli player, Saeed Al Muwallad (7), and his 17 attempted dribbles are only bettered by winger Abdulrahman Ghareeb’s 19.

2020 AFC Champions League (West): Round of 16 Review

Shojae Khalilzadeh (Persepolis FC)

With club captain Seyed Jalal Hosseini well into his late 30s, centre-back Khalilzadeh has emerged as Persepolis’ Mr. Reliable over the past year. His influence is not restricted to leading the backline, but also chipping in with important goals.

In the 2019 AFC Champions League, Khalilzadeh scored twice for Persepolis; both against Al Ahli Saudi. His bicycle-kick on Matchday Three remains in memory, having been voted by fans as the best goal of the group stage. This time around, the 31-year-old has already matched his tally from last year, scoring a late winner against Al Taawoun on Matchday Three, then opening the scoring in the 4-0 win over Sharjah on Matchday Six which secured the IR Iran club's place in the Round of 16.

Khalilzadeh is one of just two players who have played all 630 minutes in the competition so far, alongside Pakhtakor’s Jaloliddin Masharipov. The defender made more recoveries (56) than any other outfield player in the 2020 AFC Champions League and more headed clearances (13) than any player among the remaining four clubs.

Egor Krimets (Pakhtakor)

Pakhtakor reached the AFC Champions League quarter-finals with just one goal conceded. A feat no team has achieved since the introduction of the Round of 16 in the 2009 edition. And central to that defensive excellence is the presence of club captain Egor Krimets at the heart of their defence.

The 28-year-old came through the ranks at Pakhtakor and has never represented another team in Uzbekistan, only leaving his hometown club for two loan spells at China PR’s FC Beijing in 2013 and 2016. Krimets was also capped 38 times for Uzbekistan and was part of the national team at the 2015 and 2019 AFC Asian Cups.

Only one player at the 2020 AFC Champions League made more blocks than Krimets’ five and the defender also ranks second amongst players still in the competition in terms of interceptions with nine. Krimets also plays a key role in Pakhtakor’s build-up play; his 422 passes played are only bettered in the team by Odiljon Khamrobekov’s 423.

*Poll ends at 21:30 (UTC +8) on September 30

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