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Esteghlal turn on the style to reach last 16 of AFC Champions League

Doha: After picking up just two points from their first three games, Esteghlal hit form when it mattered most as a comfortable 3-0 victory over Al Ahli Saudi on Wednesday secured second place in Group A.

The Iranian giants went into the game against group winners Al Ahli knowing that a win by any other scoreline aside from 1-0 would guarantee their progression into the knockout stages ahead of Iraq's Al Shorta.

Dominant from the off, there seemed little doubt after Esteghlal took the lead just before the half hour and, 3-0 up before the 60-minute mark, Majid Namjoo-Motlagh's side ultimately cruised into the last 16.

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Ghaedi dazzles

One of the standout young players in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mehdi Ghaedi is increasingly looking like the main man for Esteghlal and the 21-year-old attacking midfielder was key in his side's Matchday Six victory, scoring the opening goal and creating the second to put the Tehran team firmly in control by the interval.

While Ghaedi started the game on the left of a three-man forward line behind striker Amir Motahari, he was Esteghlal's most advanced player over the 90 minutes and was a constant threat in and around the Al Ahli penalty area, popping up on both sides to play a part in all three of his side's goals and creating more chances (4) than anyone else on the pitch.

Group A - MD6: Esteghlal 3-0 Al Ahli Saudi

After a darting early run into the box showed he was in the mood, Ghaedi netted his first-ever AFC Champions League goal with a sweetly struck shot from distance that admittedly should have been saved by goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais. An inviting cross then teed up Ali Karimi for number two, and there was also a cute backheel in the build-up to the goal that killed the tie in what was an all round excellent display.

As the youngest player in Esteghlal's line-up Ghaedi shows maturity beyond his years, constantly demanding possession and always looking to provide the creative spark. He finished as his side's second-highest scorer in the Iranian Pro League and was the league's joint-top creator of goals, and he seems to be hitting that form on the Continent, too.

Al Ahli lack cutting edge

Having opened the tournament's resumption with victory over Al Shorta on September 14, Al Ahli sealed their qualification after just two games and have played without pressure since. But, while other results secured top spot for the Saudis, two defeats from two is not the kind of form they would have hoped for going into the knockout stages.

While Al Ahli almost matched their opponents in terms of shots on goal (11-13), Esteghlal were by the far the more clinical and, had Chieck Diabate's header not been ruled out for offside, the Iranians would have been three up at the interval. Indeed, just three of the Jeddah side's efforts were on target as wayward finishing contributed to their downfall.

Perhaps Al Ahli's best opportunity fell with the game still goalless when, midway through the first half, Abdulrahman Ghareeb saw his close-range effort well saved by Hossein Hosseini. Haitham Asiri was another at fault, an unmarked header from eight yards going well over the crossbar 10 minutes before half-time.

Al Ahli's main man Omar Al Soma also endured an off night. While only Ali Karimi had more than the Syrian's four efforts on goal, the striker was off target with each attempt. The 31-year-old has yet to score in the 2020 campaign and if his team are to go deeper into the tournament they will likely need their biggest goal threat to find his shooting boots.

Front four click into gear

In addition to Ghaedi the trio of Farshid Esmaeili, Diabate and Amir Motahari make up what is increasingly looking like a strong attacking quartet and, since Esteghlal's Continental campaign resumed on Sunday, three of four have now been on the scoresheet in what is a positive sign ahead of the knockout rounds.

With the creativity of Ghaedi and Esmaeili enabling Esteghlal to continually get in behind the Al Ahli backline, the central figures of both Diabate and Motahari also had goals ruled out either side of the interval after being caught marginally offside.

Diabate in particular will be an opponent Pakhtakor should be wary of ahead of the Round of 16 clash, with the Mali international a threat both on the ground and in the air as the Iranian Pro League's top scorer looks to bring his form to the Continental tournament. Two goals from three starts, meanwhile, has been a solid return for Motahari since he arrived ahead of the 2020 campaign.

With matches coming thick and fast in such a condensed tournament, Esteghlal's forward players appear to be clicking into gear at just the right time. While the Tehran giants went into their Matchday Six fixture with qualification far from secure, Iran's top scorers domestically can now look ahead to the knockout rounds with optimism due to key figures hitting form.

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