Captain Luis Jimenez is convinced Al Nasr possess the fighting spirit to come through their tricky opening AFC Champions League engagement at Iran’s Sepahan.
The Blue Wave return to action in the continent’s premier club tournament tonight after a three-year hiatus, earned through lifting the 2014/15 President’s Cup.
A politically-charged outing awaits, with Middle Eastern tensions set to guarantee a heated reception at Foolad Shahr Stadium in Isfahan for the Group A-clash.
“It is well known that Iranian clubs are characterised for their fighting spirit and physical strength,” said Chile playmaker Jimenez.
“But this does not prevent us from giving our best and playing for the victory to provide a step in qualification. Our goal is to pass the group and we are very keen to achieve this – so we have to return from Sepahan with a positive result.”
The clubs faced each other in both the 2012 and 2013 editions, Nasr losing all four meetings as they crashed out in the opening phase both times.
Yet Ivan Jovanovic’s side will feel confident of bringing an end to this run, despite winning only one of their last five Arabian Gulf League games as they cling onto third spot.
Reigning Persian Gulf Pro League champions Sepahan are enduring an 11-match winless streak in all competitions, which has seen a shake-up at boardroom level and immense pressure placed upon coach Igor Stimac.
When asked about the possibility of being removed from his position after the match, the former Croatia and West Ham United defender replied: “That is possible but for now there is no reason to think about that.
“Players have full confidence in me and the problems in our club should be resolved internally. Currently, the only way forward is carrying on with the same quality and hoping for a better future.
“This is a big match. We want to get off to a good start in the Champions League.
“It is more than a typical game. The match is about our motivation, honour and team pride.
“We are facing problems but we’ve a great chance of winning. We hope our team will find new hope in the future and leave behind those who disrupt our job.
“We will play against a team which has a good coach and according to analysis, is a coherent team in which each player knows his task.”
A huge financial disparity exists between clubs from the UAE and Iran. Jovanovic was hopeful his foreign quartet of Jimenez, Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa, Brazil striker Nilmar and ex-France Under-21 forward Jires Kembo Ekoko will prove the difference.
He said: “I’m very happy that we will compete in one of the best Asian tournaments. We have been drawn against great teams and our goal is to qualify from this group.
“Sepahan is a very good team and we know that tomorrow we’ll have a tough match.
“The four foreign players in our team are the dynamic body of the team.
“They have maintained their physical fitness to be in good condition against Sepahan and stage a good game. We know all of our rivals, but for this game we have a minimal knowledge of Sepahan.”
Guangzhou Evergrande kick off their AFC Champions League campaign in unusual circumstances this week, entertaining Pohang Steelers in what will be an empty Tianhe Stadium.
The reigning champions were issued with a $160,000 fine were ordered to play their opening home game of this campaign after breaking a number of regulations against Al Ahli in last season’s final.
Among the offences were: filming their opponent’s closed training, conducting an unauthorised ceremony and infringing upon the rights of AFC sponsors.
However, despite their run-ins with the organisers, the Cantonese side start the competition as favourites for the title once more. Standing in their way in Group H are Pohang, Sydney FC and Japanese heavyweights Urawa Reds.
With new signing Jackson Martinez having bolstered the side’s existing attacking unit, confidence is high.
Brazilians Ricardo Goulart and Paulinho will provide formidable support and a third continental title in four seasons is already the club’s stated ambition.
At €42 million, Martinez briefly became Asia’s most expensive player earlier in February—only to see Jiangsu Suning’s Alex Teixeira increase that mark to €50 million only days later.
Jackson Martines se va al Guangzhou Evergrande de China por €45 Millones. pic.twitter.com/ngajKlaIEo— ACTUALIDAD DEPORTIVA (@ADeportiva507) February 3, 2016
Teixeira—along with compatriot Ramires—is another set for his competition debut this week.
It is for that reason that Jiangsu FC, as they will be known in the tournament, will doubtless usurp the Cantonese giants as East Asia’s most-discussed side over coming weeks.
Given their unparalleled expenditure, expectations are understandably high and Tuesday’s visit to Vietnam to take on Binh Duong provides an excellent opportunity to begin their new era on a high.
Future tests against Jeonbuk Motors and FC Tokyo, though, should provide a better indication of what Jiangsu can achieve in what will be their second Champions League outing.
Despite their comparative lack of pedigree, a winter spend of €99 million ensures failure to advance will not be greeted well by the club’s ownership in Nanjing.
As far as a “Group of Death” is concerned in East Asia, Group F sees 2015 J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima take on Thai league winners Buriram United, 2013 ACL finalists FC Seoul and a star-studded Shandong Luneng outfit led by former Brazil coach Mano Menezes.
Sanfrecce begin the group as clear favourites after their fine showing at the Club World Cup in December and begin their campaign on Tuesday at home to Chinese rivals Shandong.
On paper, they are capable of ending a recent Japanese dry run in the competition dating back to 2008.
New signing Peter Utaka has replaced new Al Ain-arrival Douglas in Hiroshima and is a familiar foe for his opponents having previously spent three seasons in the Middle Kingdom.
Shandong, on the other hand, have surprisingly omitted 2015 top-scorer from their squad for the tournament. Diego Tardelli, Jucilei, Walter Montillo and new arrival Gil make up the club’s foreign ranks.
Another big name making his ACL debut is Shanghai SIPG manager Sven-Goran Eriksson whose squad contains former winners Elkeson, Sun Xiang and Dario Conca—plus Al Ain favourite Asamoah Gyan.
While hopes will be high of a trip deep into the knockout rounds for last year’s CSL runner-up, formidable opposition awaits in the shape of Gamba Osaka, Suwon Bluewings and 2015 A-League champions Melbourne Victory.
Eriksson’s men begin their challenge in Victoria this Wednesday but will need to cope with the demands of fighting on two fronts for the first time against a trio of experienced campaigners.
After several years of big-names disappointing, SIPG will hope that 2016 is finally the year in which a second Chinese side can offer support to Evergrande in challenging for continental honours.
Al Jazira’s midfield dynamo Park Jong-woo feels the Pride of Abu Dhabi can use UAE rivals Al Ahli’s run to last year’s AFC Champions League final as motivation to finish their 2015-16 season on a high.
Jazira endured a woeful first half of the campaign domestically, just as the Red Knights did while attempting to defend their Arabian Gulf League title last season. But Ahli used Asia to turn their fortunes around, eventually losing 1-0 to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015.
Jazira claimed a group stage place with an enthralling 5-4 penalty shootout victory against Qatar’s Al Sadd in the playoffs earlier this month, and Park says Jazira can use Ahli’s blueprint.
“Our aim is to win the title of course. All the players want to win the AFC title. We can follow what Ahli did last season but hopefully we can go one better and win it,” said Park, who also feels star striker Ali Mabkhout’s recent goalscoring exploits will be vital if Jazira are to go far.
“We can use Ali Mabkhout,” he added. “He was the top scorer in the Asian Cup last year and has been playing really well recently, so we must help him to score.”
The South Korea international also feels he can utilise his own previous Champions League experience to help drive the Pride of Dhabi to continental success, having played with former club Guangzhou R&F in last year’s competition.
“When I was in China with my previous team I played six games so I have experience of playing in high pressure games and I will definitely bring that experience and other positive things for Jazira,” said the 26-year-old.
Jazira travel to Iran to take on Tractor Sazi in their opening Group C fixture on Wednesday and Park said the competition is a chance to further build on an excellent start to life under new head coach Henk Ten Cate.
Jazira have won their last four games and lost just once in seven since the Dutchman took over, and Park believes they need to get their campaign off to a good start in Tabriz and show the rest of Asia that their awful start to the current campaign is firmly behind them.
“It will be a very important opportunity for the club and also for me because every player wants to play in the AFC Champions League,” said Park. “This is also a very big burden for the players and the management because we have to show them who we are.
“Always the coach says we have to show who we are on the pitch. This is very important because we don’t deserve to stay in the bottom of the table, so we must show who we are on the field. This is our motivation, to show how good we are.
“We have to focus on the Champions League because everyone knows this is one of the most important matches of the season for us. If we win against Tractor Sazi we can also be more positive in the Arabian Gulf League, but if we lose then the confidence will go down so we have to win.”