Analysis: Al Duhail win again but fail to hit previous heights
Doha: Qatar’s Al Duhail matched Ulsan Hyundai’s record of nine AFC Champions League wins in a row in the first leg of the quarter-final, but Persepolis will return to the Islamic Republic of Iran confident they can overcome the 1-0 deficit and advance to a second successive semi-final.
When Almoez Ali headed home in the 15th minute, thoughts of Al Duhail’s resounding win over Al Ain in the previous round were not too far away. However, the Iranian giants dug deep to leave the tie firmly in the balance ahead of the second leg in Tehran in two weeks’ time.
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Lacking cutting edge
Al Duhail had been rampant in the AFC Champions League, scoring 21 goals and winning all eight of their matches to spark talk of a team from West Asia lifting the trophy for the first time since their domestic rivals Al Sadd in 2011.
The Persepolis backline was rattled early on when dangerman Youssef El Arabi was inches away from connecting with Nam Tae-hee’s cross-goal header, and when Ali broke the deadlock not long after it seemed Al Duhail had picked up where they left off in May.
But Qatari dominance did not follow as Al Duhail created fewer chances (7) than in any of their previous eight games, had fewer shots on goal (6, shown above) and hit the target just twice, as Persepolis – who have kept five clean sheets in the competition to date – maintained their discipline.
With a nine goals, the tournament’s joint top scorer El Arabi was likely to be the biggest threat, but he was nullified by a Persepolis backline martialed by the veteran Jalal Hosseini and the superb Shojae Khalilzadeh. For the first time in eight games, the striker had no shots on target and his only effort on goal was blocked.
Edmilson was Al Duhail’s main recruit in the summer months and the left-sided Belgian showed plenty of promise on his AFC Champions League debut, with his close control and eagerness to run at the opposition cause for excitement among the home support.
The former Standard Liege man bamboozled right-back Hossein Mahini, turning one way and then the other, before dinking a beautiful ball for Ali to finish at the back post with what would be the only goal of the game.
The 24-year-old was a constant threat on the left, delivering seven crosses – more than twice as many as any of his teammates. Full of confidence, he curled a delightful second-half effort from the corner of the penalty box just wide of Alireza Beiranvand's goal after again making light work of Mahini in a fine all-round display.
Brought in as a replacement for long-term injury victim Youssef Msakni, Edmilson could not have bigger boots to fill. However, if his maiden appearance on the continent is an indication of things to come, then Al Duhail will hope that the loss of their talisman is not felt as hard as may have been feared.
After a strong first half to their continental campaign, a number of key players departed Persepolis, including midfielders Farshad Ahmadzadeh and Vahid Amiri – who enjoyed an excellent FIFA World Cup for Team Melli – as well as defender Sadegh Moharrami.
While it’s hard to argue that the Iranian giants didn’t miss the creativity of the aforementioned, Iraq international Bashar Resan was given his first start of the campaign – after around only an hour of football prior to Tuesday – and produced a stellar performance in the centre of the park.
The 21-year-old’s 46 passes (above) were matched only by Ahmad Nourallahi on his team, while a passing accuracy of 85 percent was the highest on the Persepolis side and second highest on the pitch.
No player created more chances than Resan’s three and it was he who teed up Persepolis’s best chance of the game midway through the first half when his clever ball found Omid Alishah, who should have at least hit the target but fired wide.
While the lack of an away goal is cause for concern for Persepolis, a positive first-leg performance against the tournament’s only 100 percenters offers hope ahead of the return meeting. In front of a packed and vociferous Azadi Stadium, Al Duhail will surely face their sternest test yet.
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