Tehran giants Persepolis and Esteghlal will be back in action at the 2019 AFC Champions League (ACL) on Monday, in a last-gasp effort to revive their chances of a booking a place in the knockout phase.
Persepolis – sitting bottom of Group D with four points – plays away to third-placed Pakhtakor at Tashkent’s Pakhtakor Central Stadium, knowing any result other than a victory in Uzbekistan will dash the Reds’ hope of going through.
The race for two last-16 spots in the group is very much open with only three points separating leader Al Sadd – which hosts Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli on Monday – and Persepolis.
Branko Ivankovic’s men will have to do without their first-choice center-back Shoja Khalilzadeh, who missed the Tashkent trip through suspension.
The two sides played to a 1-1 draw on Matchday One in Tehran in March, when Marat Bikmaev opened the scoring for Pakhtakor before Persepolis got the equalizer through Mario Budimir.
Should Persepolis be eliminated from the group stage, this would be the second year running that the AFC Champions League losing finalist fails to reach the knockout stage in the following year.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal had reached the final in 2017, but exited at the first hurdle in 2018.
Meanwhile, Esteghlal’s chances of fighting for a round-of-16 place is hinging upon its ability to get the three points against Qatar’s Al Duhail in Group C at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
A 1-0 defeat to Al Hilal a fortnight ago left the Tehran-based side in third place with four points, three adrift of Monday’s opponent and five behind leader Al Hilal.
This would be Farhad Majidi’s first experience in charge of the Blues in the continental competition after the 42-year-old interim coach replaced sacked German Winfried Schafer nine day ago.
The inexperienced manager, however, got off to a flying start to his new career as his men managed to score two late goals to beat Esteghlal Khuzestan 4-2 in their last Persian Gulf Pro League outing last Wednesday.
Al Duhail, on the other side, has had time to rest after the Qatar Stars League reached the end of season point.
Rui Faria’s men can confirm their place in the next round with a draw, provided Al Hilal defeats Al Ain in the other group fixture.
Goals from Medhi Benatia, Youssef El Arabi and Ali Afif had given Al Duhail a perfect start to the campaign with a 3-0 win over Esteghlal in the reverse fixture two months ago.