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Analysis: Resolute Persepolis come out on top against Al Sadd yet again in AFC Champions League

Doha: When Isa Al Kasir struck in the dying minutes to seal Persepolis FC a place in the 2020 AFC Champions League quarter-finals at the expense of Al Sadd SC, it must have been a case of déjà vu for the Qataris.

The two sides went into Sunday's game with plenty of knowledge on each other, with the Round of 16 clash the seventh time they have faced off since 2018 in a rivalry that has brought about numerous talking points.

And just as in the semi-final two years ago it was the Tehran giants who would advance after, having seen their opponents dominate large spells of the game, they kept it tight at one end and found a way past at the other.

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Possession not always key

There was little surprise that Al Sadd controlled the possession – it's in their head coach's DNA, and with players such as Santi Cazorla, Nam Tae-hee and Guilherme in the centre of the park, they have the personnel adept with keeping the ball. In three of the past four meetings between the teams, meanwhile, the Qataris had recorded at least 65% of possession, while on Sunday the figure was just over 58%.

In terms of successful passes Al Sadd were also far superior – posting 428 compared to their opponents' 286 – but while their dominance of possession did lead to more attempts on goal (17-10), a closer look at how the game panned out showed they were often in much less threatening positions.

Eleven of Al Sadd's efforts (shown above) were from outside the box compared to just two of Persepolis' and, arguably, goalkeeper Hamed Lak's biggest contribution was parrying out a Cazorla strike in the 13th minute in what was one of only three shots on target for the Qataris. Indeed, numerous others flew high and wide.

“We had more possession, more shots and more opportunities; we were the better team throughout the match," said Xavi after his side's elimination. Sadly for the Qataris, it is a familiar story against Persepolis as it was the Tehran giants who took their place in the next round.

Impressive at the back

Much has changed in the Persepolis backline, with goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand having departed and captain Seyed Jalal Hosseini, now 38, no longer assured of his place. Hossein Kanaani has fitted in seamlessly alongside Shojae Khalilzadeh in the centre of defence, new signing Saeid Aghaei has performed well at left-back and midfielder Siamak Nemati has been redeployed at right-back.

Perhaps most importantly Lak has looked assured in goal. Replacing an Azadi Stadium favourite is an unenviable task but in five games since the AFC Champions League resumed the custodian has yet to concede from open play, with Almoez Ali's Matchday Five penalty the only attempt to find its way past.

Against Al Sadd an organised back four, shielded by Ahmad Noorollahi and Milad Sarlak in the deep-lying midfield positions, rarely looked like conceding. Khalilzadeh (number 3) and Kanaani (number 6) made numerous clearances, blocks and interceptions between them, with the areas of their defensive duties shown in the above graphic. Anything that got beyond them, meanwhile, was comfortably dealt with by Lak.

Persepolis' success has been built from the back. In four title-winning seasons they have conceded just 60 goals in 120 matches, while in the last three AFC Champions League campaigns they have conceded less than a goal a game. The personnel may have changed but the backline remains as stubborn as ever.

A familiar Persepolis late show

When it comes to dramatic climaxes, few clubs have written more stories than Persepolis in recent times. In 2018, there were incredible scenes at Azadi Stadium when skipper Hosseini netted a last-gasp winner against Al Jazira in the Round of 16 before a late Ali Alipour penalty in first leg of the semi-final against Al Sadd ultimately proved the difference, too.

Resolute at the back, they are a side very capable of smash-and-grab wins and so it proved once more. A glimpse of how they could make Al Sadd pay came just before the hour when a fast break down the right led to Al Kasir striking the outside of the woodwork. Soon after, with the Qataris still disputing a penalty, an almost identical move resulted in the same player hitting the crossbar.

Round of 16: Persepolis FC 1-0 Al Sadd SC

Yahya Golmohammadi's team were growing in belief and the pressure mounting on a star-studded Al Sadd side. Another attack, this time down the left, led to the corner that resulted in the only goal of the game. Al Kasir stole in ahead of his marker and this time he would not be denied as he fired Persepolis into the last eight.

Of all the outfield players who started, Al Kasir had fewer touches (32) and passes (13) than anyone else. However, the striker proved the most dangerous man on the pitch, with a Matchday high nine of his touches coming in the penalty area. The warning signs were there when the woodwork saved Al Sadd but in the end Persepolis produced at the death once more, as they so often have.

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