It’s often said that 2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football, but Japan’s Kashima Antlers will be feeling pretty comfortable holding a 2-0 lead heading into the second leg of the 2018 AFC Champions League final in Tehran this weekend.

While the final failed to garner any attention here in Australia, with FOX Sports again choosing not to broadcast the final on any medium, which has been the case since 2013 (the Wanderers success in 2014 aside), it was another fascinating battle between east and west.

Both Kashima and Persepolis are giants of their domestic scene, with Kashima winning a record eight J.League titles and Persepolis a record 11 Iranian Persian Gulf League titles. But despite their domestic success, neither has been able to translate that into success on the continent.

And that especially looked to be the case this year, with both facing obstacles that many would struggle to overcome.

Persepolis was hit with a 12-month transfer ban by FIFA after a bungled attempt to sign contracted Iranian star Mehdi Taremi from Rizespor.

As a result they were unable to replenish their squad after the departure of key players such Sadegh Moharrami (to Dinamo Zagreb), Farsahd Ahmadzadeh (to Slask Wroclaw), Vahid Amiri (to Trabzonspor) and Mohsen Mosalman (to Zob Ahan).

Kashima too faced their share of difficulties during the campaign, with the departure of a number of key players. The talented Naomichi Ueda departed for Belgium, while Mu Kanazaki, the Antlers leading scorer in the two previous seasons, made a surprise move to Sagan Tosu during the mid-season transfer window.

Then there were the injuries, with star recruit Atsuto Uchida missing a chunk of matches at the start of the season and going down again after the first leg of the semi final against Suwon Bluewings. Gen Shoji, who starred in central defence for Japan at the World Cup, went down just after returning for Russia and only returned for the second leg of the semi final, while Brazilian Leandro went down with a serious knee injury.

And yet despite all the setbacks both teams have faced, they’ve somehow managed to overcome everything thrown their way to make the final, and that is the true beauty of the AFC Champions League. It is predictably unpredictable. 

While fans around the world start to bemoan the mundane predictability of the European equivalent, that is not an accusation that could be levelled at the ACL.

Over the ten years from 2008 to 2017, 17 different clubs have contested the final from eight different countries and only three teams (Jeonbuk Hyundai, Al Hilal and Guangzhou Evergrande) have played in more than one final, with only Guangzhou managing to win it twice. Ten years, nine different winners.

By way of comparison, in Europe there has only been ten different clubs from four countries over the same period and six of those clubs have contested the final more than once, with Barcelona and Real Madrid sharing seven of the last ten titles.

Turning our attention back to the first leg and it’s Kashima that has the advantage going into the second leg.

In front of a full house on a cool autumn afternoon in Ibaraki, it was the visitors who started the brighter of the two teams knowing the importance of an away goal. Young Iraqi international Bashar Resan was lively as always down the flanks, while Ali Alipour and Godwin Mensha toiled at the point of the attack.

But they struggled to create any meaningful chance as the Kashima defence, led by a pair of internationals in Gen Shoji and Jung Seung-hyun, the latter making an incredible goal line clearance with his face to deny Alipour early in the game. How things could’ve swung had that gone in.

As the half wore on, however, Kashima started to work their way back into the game. Yuma Suzuki worked as tirelessly as ever across the front third, while Serginho, the hero for Kashima in the knockout stages, started to have more of an influence.

It didn’t take long into the second half for Kashima’s dominance to finally make its way onto the scoreboard. A neat piece of interplay between Leo Silva, Daigo Nishi and Shoma Doi was finished expertly by the Brazilian Silva from the edge of the box and Kashima were away just before the hour mark.

A failed clearance by Persepolis was pounced on by Kento Misao, who poked the ball into the box for Serginho to coolly finish with the outside of his boot to make it 2-0 win still 20 minutes remaining.
Tempers flared late as Persepolis midfielder Siamak Nemati saw red, which will force coach Branko Ivankovic into a reshuffle ahead of the second leg this weekend.

History is against the Iranians as they seek to overturn the 2-0 deficit. Only once since the ACL was revamped in 2003 has a team lost the first leg and gone on to win the title. That was in 2004 when Al Ittihad lost at home to Seongnam in the first leg 3-1, before a stunning 5-0 win in Korea in the second leg saw them win 6-3 on aggregate. 

Since that time, and including 2003, five teams have won the first leg (while five were draws and four finals were one-off matches) and all five have gone on to win the title.

But while history is against them, they do have one thing going for them – the cathedral that is the Azadi Stadium. With close to 100,000 expected to pack out one of Asia’s most iconic venues, they will be spurred on by one of the most vocal and hostile crowds in the world.

And it’s an advantage they make full use of; having gone undefeated in their last 16 ACL matches at home since 2012. It’s an imposing record and an early goal will only give them greater hope, putting the pressure right on Kashima.

It will make the opening 30 minutes of the game crucial.

Kashima will know they can’t just sit back for 90 minutes and invite pressure, looking to hold onto their two-goal lead. If they can frustrate Persepolis early, then they will know as the Iranians become more desperate space will open up at the back and chances will come in the second half.

But in the first half they must be resolute under what will be enormous pressure.

It all points towards another enthralling AFC Champions League finale. 

Categories: Opinion | Asia

#acl2018, asian champions league, #aclfinal2018, kashima antlers, persepolis

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