By Sina Saemian
As we approach the latter stages of the 2015 edition of AFC Champions League, it is no question that fans and experts alike rub their hands in anticipation of some tasty encounters. One of the four games taking place at this year’s quarter finals is that of Naft Tehran of Iran and Al-Ahli Dubai of UAE. Two teams from each side of the gulf, battling for the right to be one of the top 4 sides in the continent.
When this year’s competition began, not many people predicted or expected debutants, Naft Tehran, to come as far as they have done. They have proved to be the real surprise package and they plan on even going a step further through to the semi-finals. Iranian clubs are typically known for their fanatic supporters, but unlike their national rivals, Naft don’t boast a great fanbase. With an average attendance of around 500, they are one of the least supported clubs in Iran. But manager, Alireza Mansourian, hopes this will change when the first leg at Azadi Stadium is about to kick off: “We hope to have a 12th man in the stands on Wednesday, Iranian football fans will not look at us for our colour but the (Iranian) flag we will be carrying.”
In their path lies a strong Al-Ahli Dubai, one of the oldest clubs in Emirati football. Al-Ahli endured a mediocre season domestically in the 2014/15 campaign, finishing 7th, but that did not affect their AFC Champions League run. They qualified from their group by goal difference, above Uzbek side Nasaf and 2nd to their namesake from Saudi Arabia. Romanian manager, Cosmin Olaroiu, has just entered his 2nd year in charge of the Red Knights, and having won the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League, he’s hoping to add an illustrious continental trophy to his impressive CV.
The summer transfer window saw both teams strengthen by adding further quality to their squad. Al-Ahli added Benfica’s Brazilian striker, Rodrigo Lima, to an already impressive attacking line which included UAE International Ahmed Khalil and ex Liverpool winger, Oussama Assaidi. On the other hand, Naft spent the summer overhauling their squad, with no less than 5 first team regular players leaving and a host of new players arriving at the club. Veteran Iranian defender, Jalal Hosseini, and former Levante striker, Aloys Nong, can be chosen as the pick of them.
Though you may be right in assuming there may be bigger and stronger teams in the competition, make no mistake in the hunger and desire of both of these two teams to go further and prove themselves to be a continental power. Not many people expected Al-Ahli to overcome their domestic rivals and UAE giants, Al-Ain in the round of 16. An entertaining 3-3 draw in their 2nd leg saw them qualify with an away goal advantage. Naft, however, raised many eyebrows when against the odds, they beat Saudi Arabian giants Al-Ahli Jeddah. A 1-0 home victory and a 2-1 defeat away from home saw them qualify due to the away goal rule, similar to their quarter final opponents.
Naft will certainly believe they can get past this tough test, but their chances were not helped due to a below par domestic showing so far in this campaign. 4 games played and they are yet to win a game, and Al-Ahli’s powerful start to the season with an 8-1 victory, will worry them even more. With a new centre back partnership and many new players to fit into the successful 4-2-3-1 system which Naft have been playing for 2 seasons, it is difficult to tell if their poor start is because of their lack of coherence or it is the anticipation of this huge tie which is taking away their concentration.
Games including an Iranian club against a club from another Gulf nation are always fascinating. Their desire to win against star studded sides should not be underestimated. Al-Ahli will travel to Tehran with players such Everton Ribeiro and Rodrigo Lima, but as they learned in the group stages when they faced another Iranian side in Tractor Sazi, games in Iran are always difficult. Naft however, will understand that they are the underdogs in this tie, they’ll know in order to beat a strong side such as Al-Ahli, they will have to approach the game wisely and with a well worked game plan. Olariou on the Al-Ahli bench will surely target an away goal in the first leg in Tehran, something Al-Ahli Jeddah weren’t able to achieve in the last round.
Across the continent and the world, it is (wrongly) viewed that West Asian games do not offer a lot of goals, but this game promises to be different. Both teams’ offensive threat and their attacking mentality should see the game offer many goals and end to end action. On both benches sit two very smart managers with similar outlooks to the game, they line their team up to attack and to get goals which for us as neutrals, is everything we would want. Neither team has reached this stage before, but a win for either side can give them confidence as they will consider themselves a force to be reckoned with.