19 December 2020 12:38

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Persepolis ready for AFC Champions League final

Doha: A new king of Asian football will be crowned on Saturday when Persepolis FC and Ulsan Hyundai FC meet in the final of the 2020 AFC Champions League. The match at Al Janoub Stadium pits the form side from the West Asia section of the draw against the dominant team from the East Asia side with Persepolis losing just one match from eight from when the tournament resumed in Qatar and Ulsan posting an eight-game winning streak en route to the final. As the Islamic Republic of Iran and Korea Republic get set to meet in the final for the first time since 2010 – and only the second time ever – the-AFC.com has selected five things to look out for. 1. Will captain fantastic return? At nearly 39 years of age Persepolis captain Seyyed Jalal Hosseini is well into the twilight years of his career but the club legend, who has spent the majority of the 2020 AFC Champions League on the bench, could well be set for a return to the starting XI ahead of the clash with Ulsan.

The Tehran giants acquired Hossein Kanaani in 2019 as the skipper's long-term replacement and the 26-year-old has been selected alongside Shojae Khalilzadeh for each knockout round match. However, Khalilzadeh's departure to Al Rayyan following the semi-final opens the door for the veteran centre-back to return. Hosseini was an inspiration in Persepolis' run to the 2018 final, scoring a last-minute winner against Al Jazira in the Round of 16 and sparking a remarkable comeback against Al Duhail in the quarter-finals by netting his side's opener as they came from two down on aggregate to win 3-2. When the dream finally ended against Kashima Antlers in front of 100,000 spectators at Azadi Stadium, it was the captain who could be seen hauling his deflated teammates to their feet to applaud those in attendance as he showed true leadership qualities to the end. While age may not be on his side, and Ulsan's lethal frontline will be hard to contain, it's fair to say that few Persepolis fans will be upset to see their captain fantastic restored to the starting line-up for Saturday's final.

2. Attack versus defence? Persepolis and Ulsan's run to the 2020 AFC Champions League final has left little doubt as to the major strength of the respective sides, with the Iranian giants almost perfect at the back and their Korean counterparts the tournament's leading scorers by some distance. From Matchday Three onwards in Qatar, Persepolis have not conceded from open play in a run that now stretches back seven games. Only penalties from Almoez Ali in the group stage and Abderrazak Hamdallah in the semi-final have found their way past goalkeeper Hamed Lak as the Iranian backline has proved water tight. While Ulsan's defensive record is far from poor, at the other end of the pitch they have been almost unstoppable.

The 2012 winners boast a competition high 21 goals from nine matches and have a trio of players who have registered four goals or more: Junior Negrao and Bjorn Johnsen (5) and Yoon Bit-garam (4). Saturday's grand finale promises to be a clash of contrasting styles with a resolute defence up against a formidable attack. The Iranian champions will be confident that if they can hold out they could win by the odd goal, while Ulsan may think if they can score early the floodgates could open. 3. The replacement goalkeepers When the 2020 AFC Champions League kicked off back in February, Persepolis boasted one of the finest goalkeepers in Asia in Iranian number one Alireza Beiranvand while Ulsan could also lay claim to having one of the Continent's best in Jo Hyeon-woo, both of whom shot to stardom at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, with the former departing for Belgium in July and the latter having to isolate in his homeland after testing positive for COVID-19 following international duty, their replacements have stepped forward in fine fashion. Brought in at the beginning of September, the aforementioned Lak has starred as Persepolis' last line of defence and has yet to be beaten from open play.

In the biggest game of his career to date, the semi-final against Al Nassr, he pulled off an excellent penalty save to deny Maicon and allow Ali Shojaei to slot home the winning spot-kick. While Jo Hyeon-woo didn't start Ulsan's opener against FC Tokyo in February, he played every K League 1 game of the season but, in his absence, Jo Su-huk has deputised superbly, keeping three clean sheets and conceding just once in the knockout rounds. It is unlikely that Lak and Jo Su-huk would have envisaged themselves in an AFC Champions League final several months ago, but that is exactly where they are after justifying their coaches' faith in them and then some. 4. The standout star Prior to the 2020 edition of the Continental competition, Yoon Bit-garam appeared just once in the AFC Champions League when, as a 21-year-old, he helped Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma reach the knockout rounds before elimination to Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor. He has not been seen in the tournament since.

For a player with 15 caps for Korea Republic and so highly rated in his homeland, it may come as a surprise that the now 30-year-old has not appeared at the highest level more often. Indeed, 2010 AFC Champions League winner Sasa Ognenovski recently said his former Seongnam teammate was among the best dead-ball specialists he'd played with in his career. Yoon is now making up for lost time, showing fans of Asian football exactly why he is so well thought of in Korea. Not only has the midfielder created three of his team's goals, he has also registered four times – to add to the one he scored back in 2012 – in what has been a fabulous campaign. A key link between the Ulsan defence and attack, it could be argued that Yoon has been the Horangi's outstanding player since the tournament resumed. Should he deliver another match-winning performance on Saturday, a man that has rarely been seen on the Continent until now could well be eyeing an MVP award. 5. Nemati's chance for redemption In Persepolis' rollercoaster ride to the 2018 AFC Champions League final, which seemed to produce nail-biting moments from start to finish, perhaps no player felt the joy and despair quite like Siamak Nemati, who experienced the ultimate high and low within the space of two weeks. A goal down in the semi-final against Al Sadd at a packed Azadi Stadium, Nemati volleyed home the equaliser to bring 100,000 to their feet with the goal that sealed his side's place in the final. However, 11 days later, with his side two down in the first leg of the final against Kashima, the midfielder was dismissed late on and was subsequently ruled out of the return meeting as his campaign ended on the sourest note. Two years on and Nemati has been nothing short of outstanding in Qatar. Deployed as makeshift right-back due to the absence of Mehdi Shiri earlier the tournament, he impressed head coach Yahya Golmohammadi so much that he made the position his own as part of the meanest defensive unit in Doha. While it would be harsh on Nemati to say his red card in Japan impacted the outcome of the 2018 final, there is little doubt the 26-year-old will be desperate to make up for that bitter disappointment and help his team win Asia's biggest club prize for the first time. Who will win the #ACL2020 Final? Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR) Persepolis FC (IRN) Poll will end on Sunday, December 13 at 19:00 (UTC+8) The Iranian representative is to meet South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai on Saturday in Doha's Al-Janoub Stadium. "From Argentina, even being far away, I will always support Persepolis and I will be one of its fans. This was one of my target (being in ACL final) when I arrived at the club. So, I am happy to see you in the final," Calderon shared on his Instagram account. "The personality, quality of the players and the strength of the Persepolis fans can do everything. come on champion," the Argentina added. Iran's Persepolis are gearing up to line up against South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai in the AFC Champions League final at Al-Janoub stadium in Qatar. Persepolis, who have reached the final twice in the last three years, lost the 2018 feat to Japan's Kashima Antlers and are expected to fiercely fight for this year's title on Saturday. They have suffered just one defeat in the group stage but finished atop group C. The Iranian giants put up a brilliant performance in the semi-finals, knocking out the Saudi club Al-Nassr in the penalty shootout, despite the numerous false claims made by the Saudis after the match. The Red Army hope to put an end to the continental trophy drought for Iranian clubs. PAS of Tehran were the last Iranians who lifted the Asian Club Championship in 1993. Spectators will be permitted to attend Saturday's final of the Asian Champions League between Persepolis and Ulsan Hyundai in Doha, the first time fans will be allowed to watch the competition in person since play was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Asian Football Confederation announced on the eve of the decider between the clubs from Iran and South Korea that spectators totalling "up to 30 per cent of the stadium capacity" would be allowed into the 40,000-seater Al Janoub Stadium. All spectators will be required to supply a negative result for a COVID-19 antigen test, with tickets available thereafter on a first-come first-served basis.