AFC – ESFAHAN, Zob Ahan coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh has challenged his players to overcome the pressures of an expectant nation in their debut appearance in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals ahead of their first-leg encounter with defending champions Pohang Steelers on Wednesday.
Zob Ahan are Iran’s last representatives in the competition after knocking out compatriots Mes Kerman in the last 16 and Ebrahimzadeh knows the country’s eyes will be on them.
“All the focus in Iran will be on us tomorrow and this is something which we care about more than anything else,” said the Esfahan-born coach (pictured).
“The number of journalists who are here shows how important the match is so we are defending the rights of Iranian football as well as ourselves.”
Zob Ahan go into the match as Iranian league leaders and Ebrahimzadeh is looking for a continuation of that form.
The Iranians have already proven their worth in the AFC Champions League having finished as Group B winners, above pre-tournament favourites Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan and Saudi giants Al Ittihad, two-time ACL champions.
“Lots of people said we were in the ‘Group of Death’ and it would have been enough for us to take photos with the other teams for the memories,” joked Ebrahimzadeh.
“But I said we were in the ‘Group of Life’ and we had to stay alive.
“Now, people look at us differently which is a big achievement but it means that we have to play in a way that will make our country proud.”
The Iranian league runners-up for the last two seasons have been hit by the absence of lively forward Mohammadreza Khalatbari due to suspension, but this season’s top scorer with five goals, right-back Mohammad Hussaini, is available.
In stark contrast to Zob Ahan’s flying start to the season, Pohang are languishing in ninth place in the second half of the K-League campaign, but Ebrahimzadeh will not underestimate them when they meet at the Fooladshahr Stadium.
“Many people might look at their position in the league but we’re looking at their experience in Asia,” he said.
“We always wanted to add to our own experience by playing in the biggest matches and tomorrow will give us that opportunity.”