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2017 AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PREVIEW: WEST ASIA

Group A

Al-Ahli Dubai

Manager profile: The Romanian manager Cosmin Olaroiu is arguably the best manager in West Asia, possessing experience, tactical intelligence and tenacity in his team talks that are unmatched by any other manager in the Middle East. Olaroiu is not unfamiliar with this competition, as he took Al-Ahli to the final in 2016.

Tactical set-up: A 4-2-2-2 formation with narrow, interchanging wingers – amongst them the mobile maestro Everton Ribeiro who pops up in pockets of space around the pitch. 

Key players:

  • Everton Ribeiro: The Brazilian attacking midfielder has talent that is up there with the best in Asian football.
  • Ahmed Khalil: He may not be a relatively consistent goalscorer, but Khalil’s big game performances are second to none in UAE football.
  • Majed Hassan: The man who sets the pace for Al-Ahli, organizing the midfield and aiding the attack almost simultaneously. 

New arrivals:

  • Makhete Diop: The bulldozing striker has excelled in the UAE League for years, can he now prove himself against the best in Asia? 

Current League Position: 3rd (UAE Arabian Gulf League)

Their story this season: After a rocky start to the 2016/17 season, Al-Ahli have hit their best league form at the perfect time as they head into the 2017 AFC Champions League. They do have one key omission, and that is an Asian player after the departure of Kwon Kyung Kwon in January to China.

What do fans expect? With Emirati clubs dominating West Asia recently, a challenge for a spot in the final is the least of their expectations.

Al-Taawoun

Manager profile: The second Romanian manager in this group, Constantin Galca, will lead Al-Taawoun into their first ever AFC Champions League campaign. Fans have started to come behind him as they enter a crucial period.

Tactical set-up: A 4-2-3-1 set-up which relies on the direct movement of the wingers towards goal to compensate for attacking midfielder Jehad Al-Hussain’s more creative role.

Key players:

  • Ahmad Al-Zein: Skillful and creative on the wing or in attacking midfield, Al-Zein’s pace also makes him one of the team’s most threatening players.
  • Ricardo Machado: The central defender is absolutely key to any success Al-Taawoun can have in shutting out the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Makhete Diop and others.
  • Jehad Al-Hussain: The Syrian veteran boasts experience across West Asia and especially in the AFC Champions League with smaller sides; he was part of Al-Karamah’s fairytale run the ACL 2006 final.

New arrivals:

  • Lucian Sanmartean: Former Al-Ittihad attacking midfielder comes into the side with quite a bit left in him, although this time he acts as a deep lying playmaker for his new side.
  • Alassane N’diaye: The left winger finally acquired his permit to play in Saudi Arabia, which is a blessing for Al-Taawoun as he is one of their direct, dangerous threats at the opposition goal. 

Current League Position: 6th (Saudi Pro League)

Their story this season: After a wonderful end to the 2015/16 season, Al-Taawoun didn’t fare greatly with Dario Kalzic and sacked him only four months into the season. Despite Galca’s arrival, Al-Taawoun haven’t managed to hit their stride with 5 losses in their last 10 league games.

What do fans expect? With the departure of Al-Taawoun hero Jose Manuel Gomes at the end of last season, no wonders are expected although a respectable fight for a knockout spot is expected.

Esteghlal

Manager profile: Esteghlal appointed former player Alireza Mansourian as their new manager in the summer. Mansourian already has a pedigree in the ACL, taking Naft Tehran to the quarter final for the first time in their history in 2015, losing to eventual runners up Al-Ahli of UAE.

Key players: Esteghlal have two or three players who are crucial to the way they play. Iran international, Omid Ebrahimi, is the man who keeps their midfield ticking from the centre of the park. Also, centre forward Kaveh Rezaei is a key figure in the team, he scores goals but also creates many chances for his midfielders.

Tactical set-up: Esteghlal predominantly have played with narrow diamond in 4-4-2, a system where the front two and the attacking midfielder have a lot of freedom and have the permission to roam. But they can also play with a 4-3-3 away from home.

New arrivals: One of their key signings has been 24-year-old striker, Kaveh Rezaei. The former Zob Ahan Striker has scored 7 goals this season but contributes a lot more to their attack.

Current League Position: 3rd (Persian Gulf Pro League)

Their story this season: Esteghlal started the season with a lot of expectations but they struggled to live up to the hype around them in pre-season. They failed to win the first 6 games of the season and fell behind in the title race. Since January, their form has picked up extremely well and have now won 5 games on the bounce including a 3-2 victory in Tehran Derby.

What do fans / media expect? Expectations in Asia are always high for the two times continental champions. A failure to qualify from the group stages will be seen as a complete disaster for Esteghlal, and their manager has already stated that this club has to shine in Asia, so they’ll be confident that they can spring a surprise or two and reach the latter stages of the competition.


Group B

Al-Fateh

Manager profile: Tunisian head coach Fathi Al-Jabal is no stranger to Saudi football and was the mastermind behind Al-Fateh’s shock league title win in 2013. Can he do it once again, this time on a continental level?

Tactical set-up: 4-4-2 formation with two defensive-minded central midfielders looking to block the opposition’s dominance of central spaces.

Key players:

  • Ukra: 5 goals and 4 assists is a modest return but with Al-Fateh’s position in the league this season, left winger Ukra has been a breath of fresh air for the side in attack.
  • Nathan Junior: Almost ever-present for the side this season, striker Nathan Junior – after Ukra – is Al-Fateh’s next best threat in attack.
  • Abdulla Al-Owaishir: The Saudi National Team hopeful has struggled this season with a shaky defence in front of him but still remains one of the team’s more talented players.

New arrivals:

  • Sandro Manoel: Moving from fellow AFC Champions League side Al-Taawoun, Manoel is tasked to shore up the defensive midfield and defence which have conceded more than 1.5 goals per game this season.
  • Abdulqader Oueslati: Signed from Tunisian side Club Africain on a 6-month deal, Oueslati is expected to hit the ground running and supply Nathan Junior with chances.

Current League Position: 13th (Saudi Pro League)

Their story this season: Al-Fateh have, inconveniently, endured their worst ever season in the professional era of Saudi football with only 3 wins in 19 games and on the verge of relegation.

What do fans expect? While a run in the AFC Champions League would be great for the club, Fathi Al-Jabal has insisted that concentration not be shifted from the league where they fight relegation.

Al-Jazira

Manager profile: The one and only Henk Ten Cate needs no introduction, he has developed youngsters and created a monstrous Al-Jazira side since his arrival in January 2016. 

Tactical set-up: 4-2-3-1 which aims to hurt teams on the counter attack, thanks to the pace on offer by Ali Mabkhout, Ailton Almeida and Khalfan Mubarak.

Key players:

  • Ali Mabkhout: Also known as Mr. Hat Trick, Mabkhout has been scoring for fun this season. Goals here, goals there, goals everywhere!
  • Fares Juma: Also known as the UAE’s Sergio Ramos, Fares Juma’s improved performances in defence and strong attacking displays from set pieces have been key to Al-Jazira against well-oiled smaller teams.
  • Ali Khaseif: Khaseif has been massive for Al-Jazira in 2016/17, saving crucial points for them on many occasions. 

New arrivals:

  • Unfortunately, ACL 2016 winner Leonardo will not be playing for Al-Jazira during the Group Stages therefore he doesn’t count as a new arrival.

Current League Position: 1st (UAE Arabian Gulf League)

Their story this season: Al-Jazira are all but set to win their 2nd league title this season after Al-Wasl’s 1-1 draw put them 9 points clear of any other competitor with 7 weeks to go. Defensively sound and monstrous in attack; Al-Jazira have been revitalized under Ten Cate.

What do fans expect? As Al-Jazira are by far the best Emirati team at the current time, qualification from this relatively easy group is a must.

Lekhwiya

Manager profile: Djamel Belmadi is no stranger to Qatari football, managing the national team up until the 2015 Asian Cup before taking over Lekhwiya in mid-2015.

Tactical set-up: Belmadi can alternate between a variety of formations but has largely stuck to a 4-2-3-1 with Nam Tae Hee behind the striker. 

Key players:

  • Nam Tae Hee: One of the foreign jewels of West Asian football, Nam Tae Hee should be in Europe however has been surprisingly present for Lekhwiya ever since 2012 unlike many other foreigners who come and go.
  • Youssef El-Arabi: El-Arabi returned to the Middle East after his spell with Granada, and his return came with a bang – scoring 21 goals in just 15 league games!
  • Youssef Msakni: Another player regarded by some as good enough to play in Europe, but has stuck by Lekhwiya ever since 2013 boasting a good scoring record from attacking midfield.

Current League Position: 2nd (Qatar Stars League)

Their story this season: Lekhwiya are going head to head with Al-Sadd for top spot with both teams just losing once this season, however Al-Sadd have the benefit of no Asian Champions League football which makes their title challenge relatively easier than Lekhwiya’s.

What do fans expect? Qualification for the group in the midst of challenging Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan for the Qatari League title.

Esteghlal Khuzestan

Manager profile: Following their incredible success last season, manager Abdullah Veisi left the club and his assistant, Sirous Pourmousavi, took over the team. This is his first managerial experience.

Key players:

  • Hassan BeitSaeed: the attacking midfielder broke onto the scenes last season and has remained one of the most influential players in Esteghlal Khuzestan. Keeping him quiet should be a priority for any team going against the Blues.
  • Mohammad Tayyebi: the centre back is more than just a defender for his team, he’s a leader for the team and he’s almost irreplaceable. He’s also a huge threat on set pieces with his heading abilities.

Tactical set-up: Pourmousavi has kept a similar shape to last season, playing a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1. The only difference is that the team is a lot more creative and threatening on the ball compared to last season where they were mostly a counter attacking team. Having Aloys Nong and Arash Afshin gives him the option of putting two strikers up front if they’re chasing the game.

New arrivals: Cameroonian striker, Aloys Nong, joined the club in January to fill the gap left by Rahim Zohaivi who joined Qatar’s Al-Shahaniya. He’s had an acceptable start to his career in Esteghlal Khuzestan and remains one of their key players in front of goal.

Their story this season: Following their amazing title winning run last season, the team was torn apart since summer. They lost key players such as Rahim Zohaivi and Fernando Jesus as well as their manager Abdollah Veisi. They’ve been relinquishing in mid table so far this season and they’ve been looking forward to representing province of Khuzestan in the ACL.

Current League Position: 8th (Persian Gulf Pro League)

What do fans expect? There’s not much expected from this team. They have one of the lowest budgets in the league which makes the task even harder for them on the continental stage. But what can be expected is that this team will work extremely hard in every game, they’re a tight-knit bunch and they boast great local support in Ahvaz. Getting out of the group stages can be seen as a huge achievement for a club with such small financial capabilities.


 

Group C

Al-Ahli Jeddah

Manager profile: Christian Gross returned to Al-Ahli Jeddah during the season after Jose Manuel Gomes was sacked, looking to help the side repeat their successes of last season (league, cup and super cup win) while furthering themselves in Asia.

Tactical set-up: A classic 4-2-3-1 which relies on wing play and getting the ball up to the big man in Omar Al-Somah, but with the addition of Saad Abdul-Amir over the winter the Greens are expected to improve their build-up play from deep.

Key players:

  • Omar Al-Somah: The one, the only; arguably the best striker in Middle Eastern football. Al-Somah’s been breaking record after record this season but has been suffering from a rough patch lately.
  • Mohammad Abdelshafy: The creative left-back is key to Al-Ahli’s success on the flanks.

New arrivals:

  • Saad Abdul-Amir: The Iraqi defensive midfielder is expected to be a fresh addition to what is a relatively average midfield with the ageing Taisir Al-Jassim, injury prone Waleed Bakhshween and inconsistent Mustafa Bassas.

Current League Position: 3rd (Saudi Pro League)

Their story this season: After a shaky start with Jose Manuel Gomes in charge Al-Ahli re-signed Christian Gross. A period of good form followed in January 2017 but two losses in a row to Al-Qadisiyah and Al-Nassr leave them in 3rd and a good 7 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal.

What do fans expect? Qualification to the knockout round is a must after last season’s disappointing exit from the group stages, and with the league title now seeming unlikely the ACL is needed to salvage their season.

Al-Ain

Manager profile: New coach Zoran Mamic comes into this competition with high hopes and an interesting project with Al-Ain, the club which he left Al-Nassr (KSA) abruptly for just a few weeks ago.

Tactical set-up: Omar Abdulrahman is, obviously, the focal point of the 4-2-3-1 formation which can often be changed to a 4-1-4-1 depending on the role of Lee Myung Joo in game. 

Key players:

  • Omar Abdulrahman: Does this really need a comment? The Asian Player of the Year is the heartbeat of this side.
  • Lee Myung Joo: One of the more underrated players in West Asia, Lee’s positional sense, stamina and tactical awareness are key to Al-Ain’s midfield success.

New arrivals:

  • Nasser Al-Shamrani: Signed from Al-Hilal on loan, Al-Shamrani has only scored 2 penalties in 6 league games since his arrival and has struggled to hit the ground running. 

Current League Position: 3rd (UAE Arabian Gulf League)

Their story this season: After a great start to the season, Al-Ain’s season was demolished mentally due to the tough loss suffered against Jeonbuk in the ACL2016 final. They’ve exited both domestic cups and have lost ground on league leaders Al-Jazira. 

What do fans expect? Another appearance in the final, but this time taking the trophy back home for the 2nd time.

Zob Ahan

Manager profile:  Mojtaba Hosseini is another assistant promoted to take the top job. Following the departure of Yahya Golmohammadi earlier this season, Hosseini stepped up to take his first ever managerial job.

Key players:

  • Mehdi Rajabzadeh: the 38 year old is going strong as ever. Very versatile player who can play anywhere along the front 3, he’ll be involved in almost every offensive move.
  • Ehsan Pahlevan: one of the finest young players in Iran, Pahlevan is a tricky winger who can unlock a game on his own if needed. 

Tactical set-up: Zob Ahan still play with their traditional 4-2-3-1 which they’ve been playing for a couple of seasons. The wingers act as inside forwards and support the sole striker in attack.

Current standing: 4th (Persian Gulf Pro League)

Their story this season: Despite the departure of influential manager Yahya Golmohammadi earlier in the season, Zob Ahan have had a decent season under Mojataba Hosseini. They’re currently fighting for a top 3 finish in the league.

What do fans expect: Zob Ahan has a relatively young team with some talented players, but they are unlikely to reach the latter stages of the competition. Qualification from group stages will be seen as targets reached.


Group D

Persepolis

Manager profile: 62-year-old Croatian manager, Branko Ivankovic, has been in charge of Persepolis for almost two years. He’s a very measured and composed figure and since his arrival he has transformed Persepolis into a powerful force once again as they come into the competition with high expectations.

Key players:

  • Mehdi Taremi: arguably the best striker currently playing in the Persian Gulf Pro League, he is undoubtedly the danger man in this side. He’s currently the league’s top goalscorer with 11 goals.
  • Jalal Hosseini: regarded as one of the greatest central defenders Iran has ever produced, the 35-year-old veteran has transformed Persepolis’s defence this season. With his presence, Persepolis have only conceded 9 goals in 22 games in the league.
  • Kamal Kamyabinia: this defensive midfielder is the unsung hero in the team. He has an incredible engine and breaks up the opposition play with his great tackling skills. Don’t be surprised to see him get a goal from set-pieces as he has done on a few occasions this season.

Tactical set-up: Persepolis play with a 4-2-3-1, with two central midfielders that tend to be Mohsen Mosalman and Kamal Kamyabinia. The arrival of Soroush Rafiei in January means the attacking midfielder can play in the number 10 role and provide support for Mehdi Taremi who will lead the line.

New Arrivals:

  • Soroush Rafiei: arguably the biggest transfer move in January, the talented attacking midfielder joined Persepolis from title rivals Tractor Sazi.

Current standings: 1st (Persian Gulf Pro League) 

Their story this season: Persepolis started the season as the favourites for the league title and they have not disappointed. They have been by far the best team in the past 6 months as they boast a 9-point gap to the 2nd placed team. They look like they have the title in the bag so their attention is firmly on the continental stage. 

What do fans/media expect: Many in Iran believe Persepolis can mount a serious challenge for the AFC Champions League, and it’s not hard to see why. Fans certainly will back their team to do well and it will not be a surprise to see the Reds in the latter stages of the competition.

Al-Rayyan

Manager profile: Al-Rayyan’s manager Michael Laudrup needs no introduction, as he continues his time in Qatar with last season’s champions Al-Rayyan. 

Tactical set-up: A dynamic 4-3-3 which places great emphasis on the goalscoring threat of the front three in Soria, Tabata and Garcia. 

Key players:

  • Sebastian Soria: The Qatari-Uruguayan veteran is still a key figure of the the attack at club level but his output has drastically lessened; he has just 5 goals this season.
  • Sergio Garcia: Imported from Spain at the beginning of the previous season and part of the league-winning team of 2016, Garcia has bagged more than 20 goals in 40 appearances for Al-Rayyan since his arrival.
  • Rodrigo Tabata: One of the best players in Qatar, Tabata has been immense for Al-Rayyan across the last two seasons. He’s scored 13 this year from the wing, making himself the 3rd top scorer of the Qatari Stars League at the age of 36.

Current League Position: 3rd (Qatari Stars League)

Their story this season: Al-Rayyan haven’t been as monstrous as they were last season when they tore every single team in their way apart, but they’re still going close and are challenging for the league title albeit from afar with them trailing 6 points behind joint league leaders Al-Sadd and Lekhwiya. 

What do fans expect? Al-Rayyan, the “raheeb” (awesome), are back to playing Asian football. An early exit is certainly not what the fans expect, but hopes are high for a deep run.

Al-Hilal

Manager profile: Entering his first stint in Asian football just a few months ago when he signed for Al-Hilal, Ramon Diaz leads Al-Hilal with high hopes coming into the 2017 Asian Champions League.

Tactical set-up: Alternating between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-1-2 since his arrival at the club, Diaz has proven to be very versatile with his tactics but is expected to use the latter with the addition of striker Omar Khribin over the winter break. 

Key players:

  • Carlos Eduardo: He certainly is the most talented player in the squad but whether he’s turned on for the Asian Champions League should not be a question, as his place is up for grabs with Nawaf Al-Abed now shifted to the bench.
  • Osama Hawsawi: Al-Hilal finally grabbed their high profile defender after the departure of Kwak and Digao when they signed Osama Hawsawi at the start of the 2016/17 season. They’ll be hoping he can be the key for success.
  • Abdulla Otayf: The metronome has not got as many games as he has liked but unlike Abdulmalik Al-Khaibary, he has proven that he is capable of playing with the ball under pressure and building attacks from deep.

New arrivals:

  • Omar Khribin: Syrian forward Omar Khribin joined Al-Hilal on loan from Al-Dhafra and has already hit the ground running, scoring 2 in 4 games and exciting Al-Hilal fans with his workmanlike performances. 

Current League Position: 1st (Saudi Pro League)

Their story this season: Whether Al-Hilal could finally win the league title after some time was questionable during Gustavo Matossas’ time at the club, but one thing he did get them before his sacking was points. Ramon Diaz has built upon that and continued flying high, even beating the Champions Al-Ahli at their home stadium.

What do fans expect? With Al-Hilal, there is no expectation. A Champions League win is a must.

Al-Wahda

Manager profile: Javier Aguirre led Al-Wahda to a successful first season, winning the Arabian Gulf Cup and finishing 3rd in the league. However, second season syndrome may have caught up to him.

Tactical set-up: Al-Wahda are one of the only teams in the UAE Arabian Gulf League that like to press from the front. They use a 4-2-3-1 formation with Balasz Dszudszak cutting in from the left and Ismael Matar playing behind the striker in place of the absent Valdivia.

Key players:

  • Sebastian Tagliabue: The striker is a monster on the pitch with his unconventional style of play. Will his local exploits be converted to playing against Asia’s best?
  • Balazs Dszudszak: After a rocky start, “Jaujaak” (as he is called in Arabic) has become one of Al-Wahda’s most important players thanks to his creative abilities.
  • Rashed Ali: Signed from Al-Wasl over the winter break, the best Emirati goalkeeper this season is keen to show his talents on the continental level. 

Current League Position: 5th (UAE Arabian Gulf League)

Their story this season: Al-Wahda have been average in the league this season, sitting in 5th place with a very low points total; sitting far behind the top 4. However, they have reached the semi-final of the UAE President’s Cup which is a possible ticket to the ACL 2018 should they win it.

What do fans expect? Fans have vividly remembered their fairytale run to the semi-finals in 2007, but whether they can repeat that this year is a matter of experience. Al-Ahli Dubai did it under similar circumstances in 2015, but with the super coach Cosmin Olaroiu.

About Hamoudi

The man behind the idea of Ahdaaf.me. Based in Dubai, Hamoudi will bring you an unprecedented level of coverage of the Alfa Lebanese League in English as well as the best of the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League. With dreams of working in the coaching industry in the near future, don’t be surprised by the amount of tactical analysis that he works on to bring in a modern day feel to the very scarce analysis on Middle Eastern Football. (PS: Beware of his rants about the ignominious status of football in his native country Lebanon…).

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