HONG KONG: Persepolis have fallen in the Asian Champions League finals twice in three years but, four months after losing last season’s decision maker, the Iranians will start on Wednesday to rekindle their hopes of winning the biggest prize of Asian football.
Yahya Golmohammadi’s side are back in the continental fray after slipping to loss to South Korean Ulsan Hyundai in the final two seasons of 2020 after losing to Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
The Tehran club face a tough Group E debut against Al Wahda from UAE’s Henk Ten Cate in Margoa.
The Indian city is one of four venues hosting matches in five groups in the west of the continent, with matches taking place in biosecurity bubbles due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riyadh will host two groups while compatriot Saudi Jeddah as well as Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates will host one each in a competition that has grown from 32 to 40 teams.
The clubs were divided into 10 groups including five in the west and five in the east. Games in the east are scheduled to start in June.
Only the group winners are guaranteed to reach the bottom 16 alongside the six teams with the best finalist records – three from the east and three from the west.
Persepolis was also drawn along with Group E hosts FC Goa and Qatar’s Al Rayyan, with the Iranians favored to advance.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, the only West Asian team to win the title in the past nine years, returns to the competition after being sent off last year in the group stage due to a series of positive COVID-19 tests.
Rogerio Micale’s team take on Shabab Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates, newcomers Istiklol from Tajikistan and AGMK from Uzbekistan in Group A in Riyadh, while Sharjah hosts Group B, which includes the Iranian tractor, the Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan and the Iraqi Air Force.
Al Ahli in Jeddah hosts Group C, which includes Qatari Al Duhail, Iranians Esteghlal and Al Shorta of Iraq, Group D containing Al Sadd of Qatar, Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia, Jordanian Al Wehdat and Foolad of Iran playing in Riyadh.
Group matches start on Wednesday and will continue until April 30, with the knockout stage set to begin in September.
(Reporting by Michael Church, editing by Ken Ferris)