FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan previews the AFC Champions League semi-final between Qatar’s Al Sadd and Persepolis of Iran.
On Tuesday evening, two Asian giants will begin a 180-minute battle in the battle for supremacy.
Granted, it is technically still the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League and the victors over the next two legs will not have any prize to show for their efforts.
But, since Asia’s premier club competition was divided down the middle, there is genuine bragging rights up for grabs as both Al Sadd and Persepolis can truly lay claim to being the “Best in the West”.
It promises to be an intriguing battle between a glamorous Al Sadd outfit, led by illustrious names such as Xavi and Gabi, against a more-humble but equally effective Persepolis side brimming with quality local talent.
Here, FOX Sports Asia looks at the story so far and which side could be favourites for the tie, starting with Tuesday’s first leg at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
Curiously, the two teams have already faced off this season having been drawn together in Group C.
Al Sadd were victorious in their first meeting with a 3-1 home win, courtesy of a Baghdad Bounedjah brace and a Boualem Khoukhi strike, before Persepolis exacted revenge in Tehran as a Morteza Pouraliganji own-goal handed them a 1-0 triumph.
Both were pushed all the way Nasaf Qarshi but Al Sadd managed to finish top on 13 points, while Persepolis were one point behind them and two ahead of the third-placed Uzbek outfit.
In the Round of 16, Persepolis were given a real scare after a 3-2 first-leg defeat to Al Jazira, but an 89th-minute goal by inspirational captain Jalal Hosseini saw them win the return encounter 2-1 and progress on away goals.
Meanwhile, Al Sadd were given a tough test by Al Ahli but were ultimately the better side over 180 minutes and claimed a deserving 4-3 aggregate win.
Then, the quarter-finals saw Persepolis come up against an all-conquering Al Duhail side who won the first leg 1-0 and were charging towards a tournament record of ten consecutive victories.
Remarkably, the Iranian giants produced a fine performance in the second leg – once again at their imposing home that is the Azadi Stadium – to win 3-1 and deny their opponents a slice of history, as well as a place in the semis.
In another Qatar-Iran clash, Al Sadd were always in control after beating Esteghlal 3-1 in the opening encounter, before making sure of their progress with a 2-2 draw in the second leg.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Akram Afif (Al Sadd)
There is no denying that Al Sadd’s main threat up front has been Algeria international Baghdad Bounedjah, the tournament’s top scorer at present with 12 goals.
However, he has had a capable supporting cast behind him and none more so than 21-year-old starlet Akram Afif.
Afif proved he is one for the big occasion with goals in both legs of the quarters but contributes in more ways than just finding the back of the net, and he should give the Persepolis defence plenty of headaches.
Gabi (Al Sadd)
Although his arrival has not received as much fanfare as compatriot Xavi received a few years ago, the capture of Gabi is still a huge coup for Al Sadd given the balance he can bring to a side.
His simple but effective style of play means that he will almost never make the headlines but, already, his presence in the starting XI has allowed Xavi even more freedom to get the team going in the final third.
At least in the ACL, Gabi is yet to take a game by the scruff of its neck but even he needs time to settle in and get familiar with his new team-mates.
Still, with a place in the Champions League final up for grabs, Al Sadd would love to Gabi to really stamp his authority against Persepolis.
Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis)
Following a memorable FIFA World Cup, where he was part of the heroic Iran side that nearly reached the knockout round and even saved a penalty against Cristiano Ronaldo, Alireza Beiranvand has certainly returned to the Azadi Stadium with his reputation enhanced.
Having opted against an overseas move for now, it is imperative that Beiranvand shows he is not stagnating by staying in his homeland and must push on in establishing himself as one of Asia’s best goalkeepers.
He did produce a couple of nervy moments in the two legs against Al Duhail but – if on form – could prove impossible for Al Sadd to beat.
Godwin Mensha (Persepolis)
It is rather interesting that Godwin Mensha has not always been a starter for Persepolis in the Champions League this season, especially considering the kind of impact he has when he is on the field.
He got them up and running with their first goal of the campaign against Nasaf and then grabbed what proved to be an important second goal in the first-leg loss to Al Jazira.
But none were more crucial than the fine effort which sealed the win against Al Duhail, where he comfortably brushed aside a couple of challenges and coolly rounded opposition keeper Amine Lecomte to score.
With home advantage, Al Sadd will still be favourites for this tie and – with Al Duhail and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors out of the tournament – are now the most prolific in attack.
Especially with Xavi pulling the string in behind the clinical Bounedjah and lively Afif, it will not be a surprise if the Wolves create enough chances to score a few.
Nonetheless, Persepolis are an equally capable team despite the lack of star names and a front two of Mensha and Ali Alipour will pose a headache to any opponents.
Al Sadd would still be expected to win but an away goal to Persepolis could make things very interesting.
Gabriel Tan’s prediction: 2-1 to Al Sadd with everything to play for at the Azadi on October 23.