Al Hilal v Persepolis: Who will be best in the West?

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

180 minutes, as well as each other, is all that stands in the way of Al Hilal and Persepolis from being crowned the best of the West in the AFC Champions League.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and Persepolis of Iran face off in the Champions League semi-finals, starting with Tuesday’s first leg to be held at the neutral venue of the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Apart from being unofficially crowned the top side in West Asia, there is also a spot in the Champions League final up for grabs.

Here, FOX Sports Asia previews the first part of what is destined to be a tantalising double header between two traditional heavyweights.

THE LOWDOWN

Al Hilal
Best achievement: Champions (1991, 2000)
Last time out in 2016: Round of 16 (eliminated by Lokomotiv Tashkent)
On the domestic front: Champions of the 2016/17 Saudi Professional League
Manager: Ramon Diaz – The Argentine made a name for himself as a coach in his homeland with six top-flight titles but also played for Fiorentina and Inter Milan, winning Serie A with the latter in 1988/99. Diaz, who has also managed the Paraguay national team, took over the Al Hilal reins last October.

Persepolis
Best achievement: Third place (1996/97, 1999/2000, 2000/01)
Last time out in 2016: Did not qualify
On the domestic front: Champions of the 2016/17 Persian Gulf Pro League
Manager: Branko Ivankovic – No stranger to Asian football, Ivankovic has had spells in charge of Shandong Luneng, Al Wahda and the Iran national team. The Croat has thus far led Persepolis to the league title and a Iranian Super Cup since taking over, and is the current holder of the Iranian Manager of the Year award.

HOW THEY GOT THIS FAR

Al Hilal are the only unbeaten side remaining in the tournament, having finished top of Group D with three wins and three draws to their names.

They then saw off another Iranian side in Esteghlal in the Round of 16, before claiming a 3-0 aggregate win over Al Ain in the quarters.

Meanwhile, Persepolis were also in Group D and advanced after finishing second, and have since seen off Lekhwiya and Al Ahli to set up a third meeting of the season with Al Hilal.

The first match between the two sides in February resulted in a 1-1 draw as an 82nd-minute strike by Carlos Eduardo cancelled out Mohsen Mosalman’s opener for the Iranians.

The rematch in April then saw both teams play out a 0-0 draw at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in the neutral venue of Oman.

KEY BATTLES

Carlos Eduardo v Shoja’ Khalilzadeh

Omar Kharbin may be the focal point of the Al Hilal attack, but it is Carlos Eduardo that has emerged as their deadliest threat in the attacking third.

With the opposition centre-backs usually mindful of Kharbin’s presence, Eduardo has been able to exploit this with his deadly finishing and uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.

More joy for Carlos Eduardo on Tuesday?

The Brazilian is currently the joint-second top scorer in the competition with seven goals, and his clinical hat-trick in their 3-0 second-leg win over Al Ain basically fuelled their progress.

While Eduardo usually starts off in wide positions, he will inevitably make his way into the middle and this is where someone like Shoja’ Khalilzadeh will have to call on all his experience to prevent the Al Hilal man from running riot.

Osama Hawsawi v Mehdi Taremi

Persepolis may have a new darling in Ali Alipour but there is no denying how important a role Mehdi Taremi still plays for Artesh-e-Sorkh.

Whenever he is on the field, the 25-year-old instantly gets the attentions of the strongest defender on the opposing side, opening up space for his team-mates to inflict the damage.

In Osama Hawsawi, Taremi will be coming up against a defender amongst Asia’s best, although he is one of the few strikers with the required physicality to deal with the Al Hilal star.

And don’t rule out Taremi dealing some damage of his own.

Nicolas Milesi v Farshad Ahmadzadeh

Eduardo may have been the headline act in Al Hilal’s last outing, but it was Nicolas Milesi who ran the show.

The Uruguayan midfielder laid on two sublime assists for Eduardo but also provided plenty of bite in the middle of the park, proving he can destroy as well as he creates.

The suspension of Kamal Kamyabinia following a red card in their previous outing means Persepolis will be without the man who would have been the first choice to nullify Milesi’s threat.

This could means that Farshad Ahmadzadeh has to perform more defensive duties than he is accustomed to, or it could boil down to who can create more between him and Milesi.

Either way, whoever wins this midfield duel will play a huge role in guiding their respective team to victory.

Comments