Dubai: As we edge closer to the resumption of the 2020 AFC Champions League with the East matches taking place in Doha over the next few weeks, head coaches of the 16 participating teams hope to create names for themselves in the competition as those from West Asia groups did earlier in the year.
the-AFC.com looks at four head coaches from four different nations who led their respective sides into the quarter-finals of the 2020 AFC Champions League (West), navigating various challenges and proving their worth as some of the finest in the continent in 2020.
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Rui Vitoria – Al Nassr
In his third season in charge of Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr, Portuguese coach Rui Vitoria set out to prove his 2018-19 Saudi Pro League win was not a mere stroke of luck. The 2019-20 domestic campaign saw them fall short of expectations, finishing the league season as runners-up, eight points behind archrivals and champions Al Hilal.
But by the time the summer of 2020 arrived, the Portuguese was overseeing a transformation in the squad as Al Nassr eyed an improvement on their 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final exit. Argentinian midfielder Pity Gonzalez arrived from MLS side Atlanta United and winger Abdulfattah Asiri moved from Jeddah-based Al Ahli to the capital Riyadh.
Efficient recruitment was married with tactically astute decisions from the Portuguese as Al Nassr resumed their continental campaign in September with seven points from three games to secure qualification to the Round of 16 as Group D leaders before a final day 1-0 loss to Al Ain.
Vitoria’s men produced two disciplined performances against Saudi opposition in the knock-out stages, producing clean sheets as they overcame Al Taawoun 1-0 in the Round of 16 and brushing aside Al Ahli 2-0 in the quarter-finals to reach the semi-final of the AFC Champions League for the first time in their history.
In the penultimate game, it was fine differences as Al Nassr saw their first-half lead cancelled out before the break and 10-man Persepolis held out for a 1-1 draw before eliminating Vitoria’s men on penalties.
Vladan Milojevic – Al Ahli
Ever since the two-year spell of Swiss manager Christian Gross which saw Al Ahli end a 32-year wait to win the Saudi Pro League title in 2015-16, the Jeddah-based club saw a revolving door of head coaches, with 11 appointments over the past four years, none of whom completed a full calendar year in charge, including two further spells for Gross.
The latest to take on the hot seat at King Abdullah Sport City Stadium was Vladan Milojevic, who joined Al Ahli in February ahead of their 2020 AFC Champions League campaign. Two-time league champion in his native Serbia, Milojevic was embarking on his first adventure outside of Europe.
The 50-year-old coach had his work cut out for him as new signing Elvis Saric suffered a long-term injury and star winger Asiri departed for Al Nassr, leaving Al Ahli to rely on the prowess of talisman Omar Al Somah and former Germany international Marko Marin, himself returning from an injury, supported by a cast of youngsters.
The withdrawal of UAE’s Al Wahda FSCC from the 2020 AFC Champions League Group A meant Al Ahli needed to better one of Al Shorta and Esteghlal to progress out of the group, but to their credit, they bettered both to top the group with two matches to spare.
Milojevic matched Al Ahli’s best continental performance in the past seven years, sending them into a third quarter-final since 2013 after coming from behind to defeat UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli Dubai on penalty shootouts. The journey was, however, ended at the hands of compatriots Al Nassr in the next stage, with the Serbian and his men leaving Doha with their heads held high knowing they had the odds stacked against them.
Yahya Golmohammadi – Persepolis
Replacing one of the most successful head coaches at a club the size of Persepolis is a daunting task for anyone, and following the short-lived Gabriel Calderon stint, former defender Yahya Golmohammadi was tasked with restoring the club to the unprecedented heights achieved under Branko Ivankovic between 2015 and 2019.
The 49-year-old had represented Persepolis for four years in the 1990s and managed them briefly in 2012-13, but this time he was coming into a side that had won three consecutive Iran Pro League titles and reached the AFC Champions League semi-final in 2017 and final in 2018.
A poor start to the 2020 AFC Champions League saw Persepolis pick up one point from two games in February, but a strong post-stoppage form saw them seal a fourth domestic title in July and the momentum continued despite losing key players Ali Alipour and Alireza Beiranvand over the summer.
Persepolis’ form in the 2020 AFC Champions League Group C after the restart read three wins, one defeat, three clean sheets, six goals scored and just one conceded; a penalty by Almoez Ali that helped Al Duhail to a 1-0 win, a result that would prove to be Persepolis’ sole defeat in the competition thus far.
Topping the group, Golmohammadi’s men went on to eliminate Xavi’s Al Sadd in the Round of 16 thanks to an Isa Alkasir strike. They then added a fifth win and a fourth clean sheet in the 2-0 quarter-final win over Pakhtakor. A penalty shootout was needed in the semi-final against Al Nassr, but Golmohammadi ultimately guided his men to a second AFC Champions League final in their history.
Shota Arveladze – Pakhtakor
It had been a decade since Uzbek powerhouse Pakhtakor made it past the AFC Champions League group stage when the side led by Georgian football legend Shota Arveladze took to the 2020 edition with the ambition of breaking that dry spell and going as far as possible.
A line-up combining veterans such as Dragan Ceran, Erin Derdiyok and Anzur Ismailov, the brightest domestic talent in Jalalodin Masharipov and a number of international players at their peak such as skipper Egor Krimets and forward Igor Sergeev were set the challenge of pipping the likes of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai and Shahr Khodro FC to progress to the Round of 16.
Progress they did, and six points won in February with a 2-1 win over Shabab Al Ahli followed by an emphatic 3-0 defeat of Shahr Khodro put them on track before back-to-back clean sheets and four points in their two post-restart fixtures against the same two opponents put them top of Group B following the withdrawal of reigning champions Al Hilal SFC.
Pakhtakor found themselves having to navigate the next stage without the presence of their head tactician Arveladze as the former Ajax and Rangers ace tested positive for COVID-19 and had to isolate, settling for communicating his instructions to assistant Pieter Huistra who would take on matchday duties for the remainder of the competition.
Iran Pro League giants Esteghlal were up next in the Round of 16 and Arveladze’s men showed their mental strength to come from a goal down to record a 2-1 win which put them into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. A red card for talisman Masharipov was the turning point as Pakhtakor succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to eventual finalists Persepolis, ending their journey at the last-eight stop.
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