Manager: Alireza Mansourian
Current Form (All Competitions): D-D-D-L-D
Asian Champions League Adventure:
Naft Tehran – a relatively unknown and huge underdog of the Persian Gulf Pro League – was one which qualified for the AFC Champions League Playoffs, after finishing 3rd the previous
season. It was a welcome surprise to see Naft Tehran finish at the 3rd position, when their manager was inexperienced, and their entire squad was full of mostly young and amateur players. This was even more surprising to witness, since Naft Tehran’s amount of fans were in no way comparable to other successful clubs in the league. So Naft’s success brought up a big question, how did they get successful? Well, it was because they brought a new strategy to the Iranian league. Naft’s strategy was to get young players and amateur managers to see the players, staff, and the team grow together. And even though the idea was crazy on paper, it looked as if it actually worked! Naft got into the AFC Champions League Playoffs, where they had to face Qatar Stars League’s giants, El-Jaish. Perhaps, at the first sight this was an incredible challenge for Naft’s young, vibrant, and of course, inexperienced staff and squad. However the first step was taken strongly, with Naft winning 1-0 against the Qatari giants, in a game where the match was mainly dominated by Naft. Amir Arsalan Motahari was the 22 year old who scored the winning goal for Naft Tehran, which gave them hope for the other young players doing the same in the group stages and on. However, this wasn’t their last challenge, and certainly wasn’t their biggest. Naft Tehran went on to the group stage round, being paired up with Al-Ain (2013-14 UAE President’s Cup winners), Pakhtakor (2014 Uzbek League champions), and Al-Shabab [KSA] (2014 King Cup of Champions winners). Naft awaited six incredibly difficult matches, as each team in the Group B, was a powerhouse unlike Naft Tehran.
Naft’s strategy to get out the group stages was the same as their strategy to win the league: use the player’s youth and vibrancy as an advantage, and fill in the gap of inexperienced players with a few great experienced players like Iman Mobali, Gholamreza Rezaei, and Vahid Amiri to try to control the field and energize the young players to their absolute limit. However, there was always a negative aspect of having too many young players, and that was the fact that nearly all the players in Naft were too inexperienced for international games, which could cause trouble for Naft. And this fact was completely apparent in the first game of Naft Tehran against Pakhtakor in Tashkent. Naft lost 2-1, mostly due to its excellent young goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand’s rookie mistake, due to no major international game experience. This concerned many hopeful Iranian football fans, as Pakhtakor was generally seen as the least difficult team to match up against in Group B. The worry also continued after Naft Tehran drew 1-1 against Al-Ain in the Azadi Stadium, where Naft had the home advantage. It didn’t get any better for Naft when they matched up against Al-Shabab in the Azadi Stadium, and were losing to Al-Shabab due to a penalty goal from Naif Hazazi, up until the 86th minute.
The always vibrant and incredibly fast striker, Amir Arsalan Motahari scored in the 86th minute to get the game leveled, and Leonardo Padovani, Naft’s center back scored a beautiful header to win the game for Naft. This steered some joy and hope between the team’s squad and made them more hopeful of getting out of this incredibly difficult group. The same pace was held by Naft as they scored 3 goals past Al-Shabab in their own home ground, in a game which Naft could’ve scored many more goals. However, the team’s inexperience came into play once again, when Naft Tehran drew against Pakhtakor at home, and lost 3-0 against Al-Ain. This made it harder for Naft to get out of the group, but Al- Shabab winning Pakhtakor in Tashkent was what miraculously saved Naft Tehran, and led them to the Round of 16.
By far the biggest and most difficult challenge was in the Round of 16, where Naft Tehran had to face Al-Ahli Jeddah, who was unbeaten in the group stage of the champions league. In a game which the players expected a normal attendance of 3,000 people (like their previous games), the recent stories between Iran and Saudi Arabia, made the game rather controversial and caused Naft Tehran to have 13,000 people attend their game. This was a record for the astonishingly successful but strangely unpopular team in Iran, Naft Tehran. The young team was rejuvenated when they witnessed so many people had attended and were genuinely rooting for the team the entire time. This made the team play with confidence under the support of the fans, which resulted in Naft Tehran winning Al-Ahli 1-0 in the Azadi Stadium, in a game which there was too many wasted opportunities for Naft. Most notable would be Beiranvand’s (Naft’s goalkeeper) monster throw which put Motahari in a perfect goal scoring position, but the striker who didn’t expect the ball to end up where he was, gave the ball away in a hurried fashion. The game was great, and Naft played astoundingly well, but the result of the game was nothing to keep the team confident. Only a narrow 1-0 win against Al-Ahli in home, could cause trouble when they face off Al-Ahli in Jeddah.
However, speculations were over as the young and vibrant Naft Tehran went against the experienced million dollar club, Al-Ahli in Jeddah. The game started with huge pressure coming from Al-Ahli with the advantage of having its many fans cheering for their team. Al-Ahli started the game decently, but Naft took advantage of Iman Mobali’s excellent crosses, and Padovani kicked the ball home and scored for Naft. Al-Ahli then started playing the best they could, realizing that they had to score three goals and concede none to qualify for the next round. So two goals from Al Soma, against Beiranvand in only five minutes gave Al-Ahli and its fans an extreme amount of hope. However, Naft defended very well, and relied more on counter attack rather than high pressure. This was the best tactic to be used in such situation, which held the 2-1 score in Jeddah and led them to the next round. The underdog had came all the way from Playoffs to the ACL Quarter Finals. The boys were ecstatic, knowing that they had just put another challenge behind.
The next challenge for Naft Tehran is for them to play against Al-Ahli Dubai who had won against Al-Ain in the derby, to qualify for the quarter finals. The team needed some experienced players to balance the play between vibrancy and maturity. For that reason Alireza Mansourian (Naft Tehran’s young manager and previously, Iranian and Esteghlal legendary defender) strengthened the defense with the addition of Iran National Team and Perspolis veteran, Seyed Jalal Hosseini, and Carlos Santos from Zob Ahan. Then he fueled the attack by acquiring Payam Sadeghian, Mehdi Momeni, and Aloys Nong.
However when Hamdinezhad goes forward, he doesn’t have the pace or the stamina to get back quickly so there’s usually a lot of gaps and spaces to be exploited by the vibrant Ismaeel Al-Hammadi. Also, the one way to get to them is off the ball, if you press them high up the pitch you have a better chance of winning, they struggle against teams who have what it takes to press them.
But this time, Naft Tehran looks scarier than ever before. With a wall of a defense, great holding midfield in Ezzati the anchorman: he’s the man that holds everything together, gives balance to the team and astounding playermakers, coupled with a terrifyingly fast attack force. This time, Naft Tehran is not an underdog. They are now one of the main powerhouses of the Persian Gulf Pro League, and could cause trouble for any team, and every team that stands against them.
Manager: Cosmin Olaroiu
Current Form (All Competitions): D-D-W-D-W
Asian Champions League Adventure:
A huge match-up against fellow Al-Ahli – of Jeddah – loomed at a time of struggle for Al-Ahli. However more than 7,000 fans attended the match up in Dubai and the match did not fail to impress, as a 3-3 draw was on the end of it. Ismaeel Al-Hammadi proved the hero for the Red Knights – when is he not? – and cancelled out the audacious blunder by controversial ‘keeper Majed Nasser, who completely missed the ball for the opposition to score in the first few seconds. Not the kind of goalkeeper needed to help bring the ball out of the back.
They aren’t used to playing against a big crowd either, as pressure from the fans in Tabriz and Jeddah saw the Dubai-based team succumb to one-goal defeats, the latter seeing youngster Majed Hassan get sent off before looking to cause a fight on the pitch after Bruno Cesar grabbed an injury time winner for the team dubbed as ‘Royalty’.
In between those two games, though, Al-Ahli failed to make their mark against unconvincing Nasaf Qarshi with a stalemate in Dubai and a deflected winner from Everton Ribeiro enough to separate the sides in Qarshi.
Finally, the toughest test arrived. Tractor Sazi were eliminated and they arrived in Dubai to face Al-Ahli, where the former were supported by the large Iranian contingent in the United Arab Emirates. A win for Al-Ahli in Dubai, and seeing Al-Ahli Jeddah avoid defeat in Qarshi would suffice for the Red Knights, who were keen to save face after a tormenting season. Everton Ribeiro finally embedded with the team, alongside Habib Fardan and Ahmed Khalil who were both underwhelming throughout the season. They went 2-1 down with only 20 minutes to go, before young Saeed Jassim came on to partner Khalil up top.
Ahmed Khalil equalised in the 77th minute, needing only a goal to confirm qualification to the Round of 16. Saeed Jassim’s moment came and went, where he missed a 2-on-1 chance (https://ahdaaf.me/2015/07/biggest-moments-of-20142015-5-3/) in the dying minutes of the game. Thankfully, Ahmed Khalil came to save the day and scored with 2 minutes to go and sent the fans into raptures.
Oh that wasn’t it, they had to face none other than local rivals and Emirati Champions Al-Ain. Yet a near sold out stadium saw fans see more fights than goals, as the match ended 0-0. The return game was one to remember, with Al-Ahli taking a shock 3-1 lead at the Hazza Bin Zayed stadium to the surprise of Asian football fans. A come back was completed in the 94th minute of the game, however Al-Ain exited on away goals with a 3-3 draw at home. Disaster for Al-Ain, happiness for Dubai.
Missing Players / Injuries
|Humam Tareq||Not Registered|
Al-Ahli will play based on the high fitness levels advocated by Cosmin Olaroiu, who is a revered figure in Middle Eastern Football. Yet the technical quality the team possesses is superlative, with a large portion of the squad adept in that field. A hybrid of a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 will be put in place, with Ahmed Khalil and Rodrigo Lima both too valuable to start without.
The full backs will be second-tier in this match-up as the energetic Abdulaziz Haikal will be playing down the right hand side, alongside centre back by trade: Walid Abbas. The latter moved out of the defensive third calmly in the Arabian Gulf League opening week, bagging an assist in the process. The centre backs will consist of the rejuvenated Salmin Khamis and Kwon Kyung-Won.
Moving up the field, it will be interesting to see how the double pivot of Majed Hassan and Habib Fardan will work against the threat of Mobali, Amiri and Sadeghian who will all work together to create problems from all sides of the pitch. Hassan is calm on the ball however he tends to get a little rash once up against opponents, though his miniature physical stature is no indication of his capabilities.
Everton Ribeiro should play behind the striker, dropping deep or moving to the right side of the pitch to form a 4-4-2 when attacking, as he looks to link with Lima’s lateral movement that will prove vital to breaking down Naft Tehran. Luckily, Al-Ahli have one of the best wingers in the Middle East – heavily underrated in Asia – in Ismaeel Al-Hammadi. The left side of Naft Tehran should be targeted as Al-Hammadi can run riot in the space behind Hamdinezhad.
The player to watch above all is Ahmed Khalil, an enigma. Arguably the most inconsistent player in world football, he can help Al-Ahli to the title single handedly if in good shape. The way in which he linked up with Lima in the 8-1 drubbing of Fujairah was mesmerising.