AFC – TEHRAN, Asian heavyweights Persepolis and Kashima Antlers will battle it out to become kings of the continent when the second leg of the AFC Champions League final takes place at Azadi Stadium on Saturday.
In terms of scoreline, the advantage looks to be with the Japanese visitors, after Kashima recorded a 2-0 win in the first leg thanks to goals from Brazilian duo Leo Silva and Serginho.
However, with a capacity crowd expected at one of Asia’s largest venues for the return meeting, Persepolis’ vocal and passionate 12th man could well make up for the deficit.
Whatever happens, an enthralling climax to Asia’s most prestigious club competition awaits.
The Tehran giants are unbeaten at home in the cavernous Azadi Stadium, yet they will need to not only maintain that record, but also avoid conceding if they wish to have a realistic chance of overturning Kashima’s first leg lead.
The Iranian champions must now score at least twice if they are to end their wait for a continental title, and hope that Kashima do not score themselves. Should the J.League club find the net first, it would mean Persepolis would need to score four times to take the aggregate lead.
They will also have to do so without suspended midfielder Siamak Nemati, who was dismissed at Kashima Soccer Stadium following two bookable offences.
Winning control of the midfield early on will be absolutely vital for Persepolis and in Iraq international Bashar Resan, they have a talented young star who could be crucial in helping the Iranians dictate the game’s momentum.
With Nemati suspended, Resan’s role will be even more vital in helping build a platform that can supply forwards Ali Alipour and Godwin Mensha as the hosts look to erase the deficit and secure continental glory.
A morale-boosting 2-0 first leg win sees Kashima come into the tournament’s finale knowing they hold their continental destiny in their own hands: score past Alireza Beiranvand and they leave Persepolis with a mountain to climb.
And having watched domestic rivals Urawa Red Diamonds lift the title last year, Go Oiwa’s side will go into the showpiece event in confident mood they can make it back-to-back Japanese winners.
The J.League outfit struggled in the first half in Kashima against a physical Persepolis performance, but stepped up a gear in the second half with fine strikes from Leo Silva (58th minute) and Serginho (70th minute) giving them the aggregate advantage going into Saturday’s showdown.
Serginho’s goal-scoring exploits have been well covered since he made his mark on the AFC Champions League knockout stage, but his fellow Brazilian Leo Silva has just as important a role to play.
Playing as a shield in front of the Kashima backline, the 32-year-old will be vital in helping stem the anticipated early waves of attacks from Persepolis. Should he do his job well, and the J.League side nullify their hosts, it would surely put the Japanese club well on their way to lifting their maiden AFC Champions League title.