Asia Angle: Can Iran finally fire in the Champions League?

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  • Persepolis hope to end Iran's continental drought.

    Iran’s national team is riding high. Team Melli has been Asia’s number one –according to FIFA –for four years, is on course for a second successive World Cup for the first time in its history and is packed full of players active in the Europe’s big leagues.

    On the continental club scene, though, the country’s record is not what it should be and it would be fitting if one of Esteghlal or Persepolis could change all that in the 2017 Asian Champions League, which kicks off Monday.

    Since the tournament started in 2003, Iran has sent two teams to the final. The first was Sepahan in 2007, with the team from Isfahan losing to Urawa Reds of Japan.

    Three years later. Zob Ahan were defeated by South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. Since then, there has been little to write back to Tehran about.

    Maybe it will be a club from the capital this time. The provincial teams have plenty of talent but lack the stature of Persepolis and Esteghlal.

    The two rivals stare across Tehran at each other and come together for fiercely-contested derbies. Crowds that can reach 100,000 pack into the Azadi Stadium, with the whole Iranian diaspora seemingly divided into blue (Esteghlal) or red (Persepolis) camps.

    Yet the two giants are not as powerful at home as they once were. Persepolis last won the title in 2008 with a goal in the last minute of the final game of the season. Esteghlal – who were a continental winner back in the old format in 1970 and 1991 – has been a little more successful with two titles since then (2008-09 and 2012-13) but the last three champions have been Esteghlal Khuzestan, Sepahan and Foolad.

    This season is looking much better, however. Persepolis are top of the table, six points clear of Tractor Sazi, while Esteghlal are third, 10 points behind their rivals. It would have been a lot more if Esteghlal had not triumphed 3-2 last Sunday in a thrilling derby.

    If Persepolis had held on to an early lead, they would have been nine points clear at the top with just eight games remaining and perhaps able to give full attention to Asia.

    As you would expect, both find themselves in tricky groups. So far this season both are in pretty good domestic form as the Asian Champions League gets ready to kick off and both are hoping to mount a genuine challenge.

    Esteghlal did reach the last four back in 2013, only to lose to FC Seoul, and they begin their latest attempt with a tricky away trip to 2015 finalists Al Ahli. The Dubai team lost to Guangzhou Evergrande two years ago and are keen to once again go far in the tournament despite their own domestic woes. 

    Then comes a home game with Al Taawoun, a Saudi Arabian club making a first ever appearance in the continental competition.

    It is fair to say that three points will be crucial although the fact diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia mean their games must be played in a neutral country – in this case Oman – does complicate matters.

    The deal-breakers could be the back-to-back games with Lokomotiv Tashkent. The Uzbeks are fast improving after a first appearance in the group stage in 2015 was followed by making the quarter-finals last year and beating Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia before a narrow loss to eventual finalists Al Ain.

    Although Persepolis look set to claim a record-extending 10th domestic title, they do have issues. Coach Branko Ivankovic is currently embroiled in a row with national team boss Carlos Queiroz, with the feud between the two simmering for some time. 

    Queiroz believes that Ivankovic, who took Iran to the 2006 World Cup, wants his job and is trying to destabilise the national team, while Ivankovic took issue with Queiroz calling seven Persepolis players to a Dubai training camp in January. After the Croatian complained, the former Real Madrid coach sent them back early. 

    Persepolis have a very tough group. It starts with a home game against Saudi heavyweights Al Hilal, another continental giant desperate for continental glory.

    It is followed a week later by a tough trip to Abu Dhabi to take on Al Wahda, coached by Javier Aguirre. Then comes back-to-back games with Qatari champions Al Rayyan.

    If the Reds make it out of the group, they will certainly have shown that they have what it takes to go all the way and become West Asia’s representative in the final.

    It is the same with Esteghlal and while it would be incredible for Iran, Asia and even the world, to see the semi-final played out between these Tehran rivals, it is unlikely that both will make it. 

    One of them could certainly do it, however, and given Iran’s status in Asia – now is the time.