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Preview: Foolad Khouzestan, Al Ain on AFC Champions League group stage mission

Riyadh: 2002-03 champions Al Ain FC will be aiming to reach the AFC Champions League group stage for the 16th time in their history when they face Islamic Republic of Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan FC in the playoff round on Saturday.

The UAE side have never lost an AFC Champions League playoff game, having beaten Indonesia’s Sriwijaya FC in 2011, Bahrain’s Malkiya SC in 2018 and Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor last year.

Foolad, on the other side, have never contested a playoff match, having appeared in one edition before qualifying playoffs were introduced and qualified to the group stage directly in two subsequent appearances.

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The domestic form

Having qualified for the 2021 AFC Champions League after finishing third in the 2019-20 Iran Pro League, Foolad’s wait for a third domestic league title is likely to extend for yet another season as they find themselves in fourth place this campaign, 14 points adrift of leaders Persepolis with 12 games left to play.

The Ahvaz-based club won their first league title in 2004-05, only to be relegated to the second tier of Iranian football two years later. Their return, however, was instant and by 2013-14 they had been crowned national champions once more.

This season, coach Javad Nekounam’s men have been going through an inconsistent run of form, winning two, drawing three and losing one of their last six league games going into the Al Ain clash.

Record UAE Pro League winners and the nation’s most decorated club, Al Ain have been struggling for the past two years. Since winning the 2017-18 league title, they regressed to finish third in 2018-19.

A repeat of that third place finish and a return to the AFC Champions League next season looks unlikely for head coach Pedro Emanuel’s men who are currently sixth in the standings, six points behind third-placed Shabab Al Ahli in the last AFC Champions League qualifying spot.

Al Ain’s recent form shows three defeats and a draw in their last six games, and should the 13-time UAE Pro League champions end the season in their current sixth place, that would be their worst position since finishing 10th in 2010-11.

The continental history

Whereas Foolad look to be the relatively in-form team going into Saturday’s clash, it is Al Ain who boast a prouder history in the AFC Champions League.

Foolad made their continental debut in 2006 when, despite starting the campaign with a 6-0 victory over Kuwait’s Qadsia SC and making it four points from two with a draw against Syria’s Al Ittihad, they finished bottom of Group A, failing to collect any further points from their subsequent four games.

It would be eight years later that Foolad returned to the AFC Champions League. This time, they showed a different side to them, topping Group B undefeated and advancing to the Round of 16 for the first time in their history before being edged out by Qatar’s Al Sadd on away goals to exit the 2014 edition without a single defeat, having drawn their two knock-out games 0-0 and 2-2.

Foolad returned to the competition the following year but were unable to replicate their exploits from 2014, finishing third in their group. Bizarrely, despite playing 20 AFC Champions League matches, Foolad never faced Emirati opponents.

Ever since the inception of the AFC Champions League to replace the Asian Club Championship in 2002-03, Al Ain were a staple of the competition. In fact, they were the first winners of the revamped competition, beating Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana in the final.

The Emirati club has since qualified for all but three editions of the competition, missing out on the 2008, 2009 and 2012 campaigns. Amongst West Asian clubs, this record is only matched by Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

Al Ain reached the final on three occasions, winning on the first time of asking then losing to Al Ittihad in 2005 and to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016. No team in West Asia has reached more AFC Champions League finals, and only Al Hilal and Al Ittihad have reached as many.

Key men

Telling of the type of season Al Ain are having domestically, only one of their players has more than five goals to his name, that is the club’s Togolese striker Kodjo Laba.

The 29-year-old has been a revelation since his arrival at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium from Moroccan side RS Berkene in 2019. Last season he bagged 18 league goals in as many appearances before the UAE Pro League season was halted due to the pandemic.

While Laba is the difference maker for Al Ain up front, they rely on the versatility of Japanese defender Tsukasa Shiotani who can fill in across the back four or in defensive midfield.

Since joining from Tractor last year, goalkeeper Mohsen Forouzan has been one of the brightest points in Foolad’s season, contributing nine clean sheets for the side that boasts the league’s second meanest defence, conceding just 11 goals so far.

A former player in the UAE Pro League himself, albeit nearly two decades ago, coach Nekounam will look for his South African playmaker Ayanda Patosi for inspiration, the 28-year-old has scored four goals in the league and will be very familiar with Al Ain, having represented one of their domestic rivals Bani Yas as recently as last season.

Foolad FC (IRN) vs Al Ain FC (UAE)
Venue: Faisal bin Fahad Stadium, Riyadh
Kick-off: April 10, 18:50 UTC+3

Photos: Foolad Khouzestan, Al Ain, AFP

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