Trailblazing Al Nasr boss Ivan Jovanovic is convinced he can repeat history and earn another club a debut berth in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Jovanovic, 53, came to Al Maktoum Stadium with a burgeoning reputation three years ago after he had led Cypriot minnows APOEL to a shock slot in the last-eight of Europe’s premier club competition in 2011/12. He now has a shot at doing this once again, as the Blue Wave prepare for their first ever knockout stage match in the Asian counterpart at home to Iran’s Tractor Sazi.
“When you do something for a team and it is the first time they have achieved it, it is a great satisfaction for the coach,” said the Serbian ahead of the two-legged, round-of-16 tie. “In my previous team (APOEL), we reached the quarter-finals and it was a great, great success for the team.
“To make the quarter-finals this time would be fantastic thing for Al Nasr and for me, as it would be the first time that happens.”
Nasr’s continental achievements – earned by finishing second in Group A, meaning they proceeded from the pools for the first time after two previous failed attempts – have stood in contrast to a disappointing domestic campaign.
They fell at the first hurdle during the defences of both the President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup, while their fourth-placed finish in the Arabian Gulf League may yet not be good enough to secure qualification to the ACL in 2017.
Flying Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa highlighted the importance of gaining a positive result, ahead of next Tuesday’s return in Tabriz’s Yadegar Emam Stadium.
He said: “The group was very difficult for us, but in this situation we managed to get through. We will try to win in our home to give ourselves a good opportunity in the second match.”
The visitors to Al Maktoum Stadium are also facing their opening excursion into the deep end of the tournament. They topped a strong Group C this time, edging out Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and thrashing Al Jazira. But their joy was not extended to domestic competition, a strong finish coming too late to finish higher than fourth in the 2015/16 Persian Gulf Pro League.
Coach Amir Ghalenoei – a former Iran and Al Sadd midfielder – said the fearsome summer heat in
Dubai will be a major obstacle to success in the opening clash. A roasting 34°C is expected for kick-off this evening, a difference of more than 10 degrees to temperate Tabriz. He said: “Our first opponent is the heat and second is the Al Nasr team. We are facing two opponents.
“We are going to need to play very good football to overcome these problems.
“We have our own philosophy, on one hand we want to defend well in the first half and then we need to score a goal.”
DONIS CONFIDENT HE CAN PLUG GAPING HOLE IN DEFENCE
Coach Giorgos Donis is confident Al Hilal can weather a defensive storm ahead of their round-of-16 opener against Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Saudi Arabia’s sole-remaining entrant into the 2016 AFC Champions League will be without the key trio of Kwak Tae-hwi, Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Breik when the Uzbekistan side come to Riyadh.
Donis said: “I know that football always puts you in difficult positions. It is not easy to lose three players in the defence, but we have to work on the 11 players we have.”
El Jaish supremo Sabri Lamouchi is gunning for revenge in the all-Qatar clash against Lekhwiya. The Soldiers were denied a spot in the final of the Emir’s Cup last weekend by their imminent opponents.
“Things will be different in this match,” Lamouchi said. “We have a lot of motivation to avenge our
defeat in the cup.”
Meanwhile in East Asia, Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat is not daunted by his team’s historic run to the knockouts.
“It’s the deepest we’ve had to play a game in our short history but we can’t wait for the challenge,” said the fiery ex-Australia defender, ahead of the visit of former winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
For FC Tokyo boss Hiroshi Jofuku, he wants to put his club’s domestic misery to one side against big-spending Shanghai SIPG.
He said: “We are struggling in the J. League, but we want to make a new club history in the ACL.”
Shinji Okazaki is still revelling in his, and Leicester City’s English Premier League success. As unlikely and as fantastic as that triumph was, it is not the first time that an Asian player has lifted one of the most prestigious trophies in the biggest domestic leagues in world football.
Park Ji-sung became accustomed to seeing his reflection smiling back at him from the silver prize as he won it four times during his magnificent seven seasons at Manchester United. The South Korean was succeeded at Old Trafford by Shinji Kagawa in the summer of 2012 and the following May, the Japanese star was also a Premier League winner.
Kagawa had already claimed two Bundesliga titles to his name by the time he arrived in England. Germany has also been a happy place for Asian stars, again mostly from Japan and South Korea. There are a number from both countries playing regular Bundesliga football.
Before the current influx of East Asians, there had been a strong Iranian presence. Ali Daei, Ali Karimi, Vahid Hashemian and Mehdi Mahdavikia all had some good times in Germany. Serie A may have lost a little of its lustre in recent years but was regarded as the best in the world when Hidetoshi Nakata helped Roma to the Scudetto in 2001.
Of the big leagues in Europe however, Spain has been different. For years, Japanese media and fans have claimed that England was not the right fit for the technically-minded stars from the east. Yet despite the supposed physicality and aggression there, Kagawa and now Okazaki have been champions, while Maya Yoshida settling well in Southampton.
It was suggested that La Liga, the league that boasts the highest technical level in the world, was a more natural stage for the Japanese. There were high hopes when Shunsuke Nakamura headed to Espanyol in 2009. When it comes to technique, the continent has rarely produced a player better than the midfielder who had impressed in Scotland and Italy. Yet he was very plain in Spain and was soon on his way out.
Lee Chun-soo, one of Korea’s best players in the first decade of the 21stcentury, also made little to no impact with Real Sociedad and Numancia. Compatriot Park Chu-young went to Celta Vigo on loan from Arsenal and while the striker started okay, he didn’t really make much of a name for himself.
Javad Nekounam is the only one to have made a name for himself in Spain in the modern era. The Iranian legend spent six seasons with Osasuna and impressed at one of the league’s smaller clubs. His consistency earned him a special place among fans in Pamplona. The midfielder chipped in with quite a few goals too.
That’s pretty much it and it means this week’s news coming out of Qatar is both exciting and encouraging. Akram Afif has joined Villarreal and if the striker, still only 19, can settle and then shine in Spain then it would be huge for Qatar but also meaningful for West Asia and the continent as a whole.
The teenager has the tools: pace, a love of dribbling and an ability to find space inside the area. There are other advantages too. He already has experience in Europe with Eupen, a Qatari-owned Belgium club that is becoming a stepping stone for Qataris looking to head west. The Al Sadd star has already made his debut for the national team, which is becoming one of the best in Asia, and has big-game experience. Few will forget his tournament-winning goal in the final of the 2014 AFC Under-19 Championship against North Korea as a 17 year-old.
It is well-known that players from West Asia are shy to try their luck in Europe (Iran apart) but Qatar are starting to buck the trend thanks to the country’s ambition to become a major football power ahead of their hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
“I dream of playing for Qatar in the World Cup in 2022,” Afif told FIFA. “I think we will have a good team for Qatar 2022, our youth team is readying for the Asian Cup in October and they have a good team. We also won the last Asian Cup in Myanmar. We have a good young generation developing.”
Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates too, have an advantage over Japanese and Korean players when joining a big club in a big league. As soon as the latter happens, scores of scribes from Seoul and Tokyo turn up at the player’s training sessions and games and generally follow him around his new home. This kind of pressure and attention will not be an issue for Afif and he should be allowed to develop at his own pace without his every move being reported and debated back home.
He is also young enough for all to know it will take time to settle at a club that is the best of the rest this season behind the big three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
“Playing in the Champions League is an objective for me,” he said. “[Villarreal] are a big team and one of the best in Spain. I hope I can learn a lot of things in the next few years from the players and the coaches with the club.”
He can talk the talk and there is a genuine hope that he can walk the walk. If so, then he can pave the way for more from the region to follow and the move really will be historic.
Afif on Sunday described his transfer as a “dream” after his move was confirmed by his parent club Al Sadd and the Spaniards.
“It is a dream come true for me to be the first Qatari player in La Liga,” Afif said in an interview with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body organising the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
“I am very happy to sign for Villarreal, they are a big team and one of the best teams in Spain.”
He added that he would aim for the first team next season.
“Villarreal will play the Champions League next season so we’ll try to be a difficult team to beat in La Liga and go as far as we can in all competitions,” said the young history-maker.
Al Sadd, the Doha club for which Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez now plays, took to social media on Saturday evening to say it had reached a deal with Villarreal.
And in a statement on its website, subsequently retweeted by Afif, Villarreal also confirmed that an agreement had been reached “in principle”.
The 19-year-old, born in Doha, is no stranger to Spanish football having played for Villarreal and Sevilla’s youth teams.
Since 2015, Afif has been playing for KAS Eupen, a Qatari-owned team in the Belgian second division.
Eupen is owned by Qatar’s renowned Aspire Academy, which has spent millions trying to develop young Qatari sports stars over the past decade. Afif is a product of Aspire.
His transfer to arguably the strongest European league could be seen as a major coup for Aspire.
During the current season he scored six times in 16 appearances for Eupen, who subsequently have gained promotion to Belgium’s top division.
A fast and technically proficient player, Afif made his debut for the Qatari national side last year during the country’s record 15-0 trouncing of Bhutan in an AFC World Cup qualifier.
He is likely to feature in Qatar’s make-or-break matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with qualifiers taking place from later this year.
Villarreal currently lie fourth in La Liga and have already secured qualification for next season’s Champions League.