The highly anticipated AFC Champions League finale is finally here. For months now, the continental tournament has entertained fans and kept up an extremely high level of competition, and leading up to this final, excitement has been perhaps at its peak.
Two very different kinds of teams find themselves playing the two-legged final this time around. For casual viewers of the beautiful game, the name Kashima Antlers is a familiar one, owing to the enormous success the Japanese giants have had in their storied history. At the other end though, a new competitor has entered the fray, and is making waves all across Asia with their impressive performances.
Iranian side Persepolis have reached the final of the AFC Champions League for the first time ever, and have gone one better than their performance last year, where they reached the semi-finals. The boys from Tehran are a committed bunch, and possess some serious talent that has been on show throughout this tournament.
As we head on over to the first leg of the grand finale, we wanted to take a look at the five names who are most capable of having an impact on the crucial tie. With the possibility of FIFA Club World Cup football looming, here are five players to keep an eye on:
#5 Ali Alipour (Persepolis, Country: Iran)
The name might not instantly ring a bell in the heads of most football fans, but 22-year-old Ali Alipour has slowly but steadily become Persepolis’ main man as the tournament has progressed. One of the most exciting prospects to come out of the country of Iran in a long time, Alipour has all the makings of a successful forward, and has shown his ability leading up to the final.
He is the leading goalscorer for the Persepolis team with five goals so far and fans of the Iranian unit will be praying that he continues his good form as he takes the pitch against a tough Kashima Antlers side tomorrow. He will, undoubtedly, be the one to look out for with long balls and crosses into the box.
#4 Kwoun Sun-Tae (Kashima Antlers, Country: South Korea)
From the exuberance of youth all the way to loads of experience. Next up on our list of players to watch out for is seasoned campaigner Kwoun Sun-Tae. The 34-year-old stopper has seen it all and done it all during a hugely successful career in Asian football, and has won the AFC Champions League twice in the past, both times with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
The South Korean has a glorious chance of making history by becoming the only player to win three AFC Champions League titles if he can help his team in winning, and considering how good his saves have been in this tournament, we wouldn’t bet against it happening. He is most definitely the rock between the sticks that the Antlers are lucky to have, and his veteran instincts could be hugely beneficial to the side.
#3 Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis, Country: Iran)
If you were fortunate enough to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia earlier this year, you know all that this particular player is capable of.
Iran put up a spirited display in the group stage of football’s biggest competition, and were somewhat unlucky to be knocked out there itself. During their game against Portugal, the goalkeeper was among those in the limelight, and that happened to be none other than Alireza Beiranvand.
The Iranian stopper saved a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo no less, and has since been working wonders for Persepolis in goal. He has had an impressive run leading up to the final, and will be of prime importance to the Tehran-based team against a powerful Kashima strike force.
#2 Yuma Suzuki (Kashima Antlers, Country: Japan)
Speaking of the powerful Kashima strike force, nobody typifies that part of the pitch better than Yuma Suzuki. The 22-year-old has been no less than a revelation for the successful J-League side in recent years, and has gone from strength to strength in a short span of time.
He is most remembered for being a complete nuisance during Antlers’ FIFA Club World Cup final match against Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2016, and was part of a side that gave more than just a scare to Los Blancos.
Two years on, Suzuki’s contributions to the team cannot be overstated. He has only two goals in the tournament so far, but his work off-the-ball as well as on it has earned him high praise, and his work rate is reminiscent of some of the best Asian players to grace world football. All said and done, he is certainly one to watch out for.
#1 Serginho (Kashima Antlers, Country: Brazil)
And last, but certainly not the least, the Antlers’ goal scoring department would be grossly incomplete without the addition of their star man Serginho.
The 23-year-old has added some much needed South American flair to his team’s style of play and his performances are proof that his signing was an inspired decision. The attacking midfielder has scored four goals in four games and is threatening to take the game away from the opposition from the get-go.
His partnership with the aforementioned Yuma Suzuki has resulted in some huge moments throughout the tournament, and his goals in the semi-final tie turned out to be the most telling contribution for the J-League giants. Come the final, all eyes are on this goal scoring machine.