Persepolis and Esteghlal open their 2019 AFC Champions League campaign on Tuesday with both Tehran hopefuls bidding to end the country’s decades-long drought in the competition.
Last year’s runner-up Persepolis welcomes Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan at the Azadi Stadium in Group D while Esteghlal plays away to Qatar Stars League champion Al Duhail in a Group C opener at Doha’s Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
Having consecutively reached the last four in its last two campaigns, Persepolis produced an excellent performance last year, overcoming Qatari giants Al Duhail and Al Sadd en route to the final, only to see their fans’ dream of a first-ever Asian glory shattered by a 2-0 aggregate defeat against Japan’s Kashima Antlers last November.
Branko Ivankovic’s two-time Iranian champion hopes to carry the momentum into the Asian contest after moving up to the top of the Persian Gulf Pro League table with a 1-0 home victory over San’at Naft on Thursday.
A Formerly AFC Champions League regular, Pakhtakor returns to the tournament for the first time since 2016 after defeating Iraq’s Air Force Club and the UAE’s Al Nasr in the qualifying rounds.
The Uzbek side, which is without the suspended Odiljon Xamrobekov, won its only previous AFC Champions League meeting with Persepolis when it claimed a 1-0 victory in Tashkent in 2003.
Al Duhail was one of the stories of the 2018 season as the Doha side went on a nine-game winning run to equal Ulsan Hyundai’s record set in 2012 before a 3-1 second-leg defeat against the Iranian Reds sent the Qataris packing.
The Qatari champion currently sits second in its domestic league and goes into its continental opener on the back of a 6-0 victory over Al Ahli last week.
Esteghlal will face a mammoth task against the Qatari side in arguably the group of death of this year’s competition, which also includes Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Al Ain.
Winfried Schäfer’s men, however, have been in formidable form lately as four wins in five – the last being a 3-1 away win at Foolad Khuzestan – have put them in the fourth place of the Iranian league table.
Tehran Blues, who will be without the suspended Roozbeh Cheshmi, also reached the quarterfinals in 2018 before elimination at the hands of another Qatari side, Al Sadd, and they return for a third year in a row after winning the 2017-18 Hazfi Cup.