The group stage of the 2019 AFC Champions League gets underway in West Asia on Monday and Tuesday with the 16 sides in Groups A to D opening their campaigns.
The 2010 runner-up Zob Ahan, attending the competition for the fourth consecutive year, welcomes Iraqi side Al Zawraa at Isfahan’s Foolad Shahr stadium on Monday.
Iraqi Premier League champion Al Zawraa is the first team to represent Iraq in the group phase of the competition in 11 years as Air Force Club last appeared in the 2008 edition.
Having reached the Round 0f 16 in 2016 and 2018, the Isfahan-based side has been on a poor run in the domestic league of late, having not won a Persian Gulf Pro League match since August, and it currently languishes near the relegation zone.
Zob Ahan did, however, produce a stunning comeback from two down to defeat Qatar’s Al Gharafa 3-2 in the playoff round.
The Baghdad side currently sits fourth in the Iraqi league and lost its most recent outing 4-0 to Erbil last week.
Elsewhere, in Group C, two 2018 quarterfinalists, Esteghlal of Iran and Qatar’s Al Duhail, will square off at Doha’s Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium on Tuesday in their opener at Group C, probably the group of death of this year’s competition which also includes West Asian giants Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Al Ain.
The Qatari champion has strengthened its ranks since last year’s exit at the hands of Persepolis with the likes of Medhi Benatia and Shoya Nakajima, while the Tehran giant snapped up striker Godwin Mensha from its red archrival.
Also on Tuesday, Branko Ivankovic’s Persepolis returns to the Azadi Stadium – after a goalless draw in last final’s second leg against Japan’s Kashima Antlers held the Iranian Reds to a 2-0 aggregate defeat – to take on Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor which had to overcome the reigning AFC Cup champion Air Force Club in the playoff round.
The group will also see Qatar’s Al Sadd and Saudi side Al Ahli going head to head in a repeat of last year’s Round of 16.