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Analysis: Resilient Persepolis find a way through again in AFC Champions League

Doha: Ten-man Persepolis FC advanced to the AFC Champions League final for the second time in three years after overcoming Al Nassr on penalties following a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Saturday's semi-final at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium. 

The 2018 runners-up Persepolis went into the tie on the back of a string of resolute performances while Al Nassr, competing in the semi-final for the first time, were looking to become the second successive Riyadh side to reach the final.

After going a goal down to Abderrazak Hamdallah's first-half penalty Persepolis got back into the game just minutes later and then, despite going down to 10 men in extra time, held on for penalties before keeping their nerve from 12 yards to progress.

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Replacement Abdi Qara does the business

With Persepolis' top scorer in the 2020 AFC Champions League Isa Al Kasir handed a six-month suspension ahead of the game, 21-year-old Mehdi Abdi Qara was thrust into the limelight and head coach Yahya Golmohammadi must have been delighted with the response from the inexperienced striker.

After making three substitute appearances in the competition to date, with playing time of less than 20 minutes, the semi-final was Abdi Qara's arrival on the big stage. As the Tehran side's sole striker he was always likely to spend much of his time chasing the game, and he had considerably fewer touches (23, shown below) and passes (13) than any of his teammates.

As the lone man up front it was all about making the most of his chances; an off-target effort midway through the first half was his first real sight of goal. When another one came his way three minutes before the interval he did not disappoint, rising to meet Bashar Resan's cross from the right and powering a downward header past Al Nassr 'keeper Brad Jones.

Abdi Qara had four efforts on goal, a total bettered only by the tournament's leading marksman Hamdallah, as he filled the void left by Al Kasir in fine fashion. After a tireless performance he was withdrawn early in extra time but can look back on an impressive first AFC Champions League start and forward to the potential of leading the line for his side in December's final.

Hamdallah's misfortune

The 2020 AFC Champions League's seven-goal leading scorer Hamdallah may have only mustered one shot on target, a supremely confident dinked penalty to open the scoring, but that does not tell the whole story of a striker who was in the thick of the action and can look back at some considerable misfortune in what was an all-round solid display.

The Moroccan's eight shots on goal was more than double the next highest number and accounted for exactly half of his side's tally. As early as the 11th minute he found space in the Persepolis box only to see his goalbound effort well blocked by Shojae Khalilzadeh before he again evaded his marker but Sultan Al Ghannam's delivery was just a fraction too high as he headed over on the stretch.

Having found the back of the net from the spot, Hamdallah almost restored his side's lead early in the second half as a stunning free-kick had Hamed Lak in the Persepolis goal well and truly beaten, only for the crossbar to intervene and leave the 29-year-old to rue his bad luck.

Three chances came the striker's way in the final 20 minutes of normal time; he flashed two shots well wide and found too much pace on Pity Martinez's vicious inswinging free-kick to head home from close range. It may not have been vintage Hamdallah but he continued to get into the right places and on another day could have had two or three goals.

No way past the Persepolis wall

Seven games since kicking off against Al Taawoun on Matchday Three and still no team has been able to breach the Persepolis defence from open play. It's an astonishing record in which only penalties from Hamdallah and Al Duhail's Almoez Ali – in addition to the scorers in Saturday's shootout – have found their way past goalkeeper Lak.

While Lak deserves plenty of praise for his efforts, the defensive unit in front of him – as well as both Kamal Kamyabinia and Ahmad Noorollahi in the central midfield positions – is a well-oiled unit that remains so difficult to break down, with Al Nassr managing just two efforts on target in 120 minutes of action.

Against a strong Al Nassr frontline, Persepolis made 26 clearances and 22 interceptions, while the back four of Siamak Nemati, Khalilzadeh, Hossein Kanaani and Saeid Aghaei, as well as the aforementioned midfield duo, won 13 of the 15 tackles they attempted. Focus is key, and once again the Tehran side maintained it throughout.

As so often since 2017, when Persepolis reestablished themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Asia, they delivered when the odds looked stacked against them, even after the late dismissal of Ehsan Pahlavan. It will now be down to an East Asian side to try and break down the Persepolis wall come December's finale.

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