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Preview - 2021 AFC Champions League: Group B

Sharjah: The AFC Champions League is back, and with an unprecedented 40 teams spread across 10 groups, the race for the title of Asian champions is sure to be bigger and more intense than ever.

One of the West Zone’s most interesting groups will be found in the United Arab Emirates, where Sharjah will welcome Uzbekistan Super League holders FC Pakhtakor, Iranian Cup winners FC Tractor and Air Force Club of Iraq, who sealed their place with a thrilling play-off win earlier this week.

Ahead of Wednesday’s kick-off, allow to bring you up to speed with the venue, star players and the group’s context.

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The Venue

Sharjah Stadium: The third largest city in the United Arab Emirates and one of significant cultural importance, Sharjah will play host to Group B, with all 12 matches to be held at the 18,000-capacity stadium.

The venue hosted six matches in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, and it proved to be something of a danger ground for teams in high-stakes matches, with the campaigns of India, Lebanon, DPR Korea and Saudi Arabia all ending in Sharjah within days of each other.

At first glance, Pakhtakor fans may be buoyed when remembering Uzbekistan’s 2-1 win over Oman at the venue in that AFC Asian Cup, but only two of Pieter Huistra’s current squad appeared that day, and one of them - Egor Krimets - was sent off.

Key Men

Igor Coronado – Sharjah

A joy to watch, unless you’re playing against him.

An attacking midfielder who can bend matches to his will, Brazilian Igor Coronado, alongside his countryman Welliton, was a key factor behind Sharjah’s UAE Pro League title win back in 2019, and he’s continued in a similar vein with 17 goals in the current domestic campaign.

He scores free-kicks, takes opponents on and, when at his best, Coronado can become almost unstoppable, netting four goals in a single league match against Khor Fakkan last month and producing a hat-trick of assists against Al Taawoun during last season’s ACL group stage.

If that sort of form is repeated here, Sharjah’s Group B matches will be must-see TV for football lovers throughout Asia.

Mohammadreza Akhbari - FC Tractor

In the era of Alireza Beiranvand, Hamed Lak, Amir Abedzadeh and Payam Niazmand, to name just a few, Iranian football is in the midst of something of a golden age of goalkeepers, but FC Tractor fans will argue that Mohammaedreza Akhbari deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

A standout on the Asian stage at the AFC U23 AFC Championship of 2016, Akhbari broke through at the continental club level when Tractor reached the AFC Champions League Round of 16 later that year, keeping four clean sheets in six group stage matches.

In 2021, Tractor are back on the big stage and, with six clean sheets under his belt so far this season, their popular shot-stopper will be as important as anyone if the Hazfi Cup winners are to make a dent in Asia.

Dragan Ćeran – FC Pakhtakor

He might not carry the sort of name recognition of some of the other top forwards throughout the continent, but Serbia’s Dragan Ćeran has been as effective as almost anyone in Asia over the past two seasons.

The outstanding goal-getter in the Uzbekistan Super League, Ćeran has netted 67 goals in all competitions since the start of 2019, and while he hasn’t been as prolific in the AFC Champions League as in domestic football, his crucial equaliser against Esteghlal in last season’s Round of 16 paved the way for a momentous result, and showed his ability to make a difference when it truly matters.

With former head coach Shota Arveladze and chief creator Jaloliddin Masharipov both departing in recent months, much has changed at Pakhtakor, but the Tashkent side will still be looking in Ćeran’s direction when a match-winning goal is required in Sharjah.

Aymen Hussein - Air Force Club

Put simply, Air Force Club wouldn’t be in this group without Aymen Hussein, and if the 25-year-old striker has it his way, it will be him that gets them out of it.

Known throughout Asia as the modern kings of the AFC Cup, Air Force Club are back in the AFC Champions League group stage for the first time since 2008 thanks largely to Hussein’s crashing injury time equaliser against Al Wehda on Wednesday, and the Iraqi club will be eager to ensure the story doesn't end there.

Physically imposing, clever off the ball and with several different ways to score, his 14 league goals make him the top striker in Iraq so far this season and his opponents in Group B will have their hands full if they are to keep him quiet in the coming weeks.

Encounters to watch

In a fascinating group without four teams who can all be genuinely hopeful of advancing to the last 16, there are unlikely to be any cheap points available in Group B, making every game worth watching.

No one has been beyond the quarter-finals. Everyone has a point to prove.

Sharjah have outstanding individuals and home advantage but haven’t reached the knockout stage since 2004, while FC Tractor fans will be desperate to see an improvement on the disastrous group stage campaign that saw them collect just two points from six matches in their last participation in the tournament in 2018.

Pakhtakor are the club with the most experience in the competition, and they’ll be eager to ensure last year’s quarter-final appearance was no one off, and Air Force Club dream of replicating their legendary AFC Cup success to the biggest stage in Asian football.

The teams have barely met before – Pakhtakor knocked Air Force Club out in the qualifying playoffs in 2019, and the Uzbek side shared a win each with Tractor in the group stage three years earlier – meaning Group B is not about historical rivalries or settling scores, but a collection of four talented, ambitious teams, who will all believe their time is now.

Poll ends at 16:00 (UTC+8) on April 12.

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