(IranSportsPress.com-AFC)- Persepolis’ status as one of the best-supported teams in Asia has never been in question, but it remains a surprise a club of the size and stature of the Islamic Republic of Iran giants have not made a bigger impact on the continental scene.
Founded in 1963, Persepolis have long been a set-up that showcased the best of Iran’s talent on the continental stage, with former AFC Player of the Year award winners Ali Daei, Ali Karimi, Khodadad Azizi and Mehdi Mahdavikia calling the club home at one time or another in the late 1990s.
But even their unquestioned talents were incapable of steering Persepolis to the continental title that has continued to elude them.
The Tehran-based outfit’s appearance in the quarter-finals of the 2017 AFC Champions League is their first since the competition was launched in 2002, with Persepolis’ last showing in the latter stages of a continental club championship coming 16 years ago.
That was in the Asian Club Championship, a competition in which Persepolis were regular participants at the business end without ever advancing to the final, with the club losing semi-finalists in 1997 and 1998 before missing out again in 2001.
East Asian opposition ended Persepolis’ hopes on each of those occasions, as eventual champions Pohang Steelers from Korea Republic ended Iranian dreams in 1997 before China’s Dalian Wanda did the same a year later.
In 2001, it was Suwon Samsung Bluewings who would claim Persepolis’ scalp before winning the first of two successive Asian Club Championship titles.
The dawn of the AFC Champions League era, however, signaled a shift in fortunes for Persepolis.The club qualified for the inaugural competition but were unable to progress beyond the group phase, and it took until 2009 for Persepolis to return to the competition as the club were replaced as one of the dominant forces in Iranian football by the likes of Sepahan and Saba Battery.
Their return to the competition in 2009 ended in the Round of 16 at the hands of Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor while two seasons later they finished bottom of the group. There was further frustration in 2012 when Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad eliminated them in the Round of 16 again.
Persepolis were absent from the competition in 2013 and 2014 before once more falling in the Round of 16 in 2015 at the hands of Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia and again missed out on an AFC Champions League appearance in 2016.
This season, however, the club ended their quarter-final hoodoo to set up their meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in the last eight of the competition as Persepolis enter unchartered territory.
Branko Ivankovic’s team claimed a second place finish in Group D behind Al Hilal, with Mehdi Taremi’s goals powering his team towards the knockout phase of the competition.
Persepolis kicked off their campaign with a 1-1 draw with Al Hilal, but better was to come a week later, Taremi scored twice in the final 10 minutes to give Persepolis all three points in their meeting with Al Wahda from the United Arab Emirates.
On Matchday Three, Taremi was on the scoresheet again, but it was not enough to prevent his team from falling to a 3-1 loss at the hands of Qatar’s Al Rayyan.
That result dictated the complexion of what remained of the group phase for both clubs as, with Al Hilal clearly establishing themselves as the most likely group winners, the battle was on between Persepolis and Al Rayyan for second place.
The pair shared a 0-0 draw on Matchday Four before another scoreless draw for Persepolis with Al Hilal threatened the Iranian side’s grip on second place, only for Al Rayyan to succumb to a surprise 5-1 defeat at the hands of an Al Wahda side that had not picked up a victory previously.
Despite that win, Persepolis’ fate still hinged on the outcome of Al Rayyan’s meeting with Al Hilal, with Ivankovic and his team needing to defeat Al Wahda and hope the Saudi side would not lose against their rivals from the United Arab Emirates.
Persepolis picked up the win needed against Al Wahda thanks largely to a hat-trick from Taremi while Al Hilal edged Al Rayyan in a seven-goal thriller to take the clubs from Saudi Arabia and Iran into the last 16.
A second place finish in Group D set up a meeting with Qatar’s Lekhwiya in the next phase of the competition, with the two teams playing out a 0-0 draw in the opening game that left the second leg a winner-takes-all affair.
In the end, the outcome was decided in the cruellest fashion for the club from Doha, who were eliminated thanks to an own goal by Spanish defender Chico Flores, but it was enough to seal an AFC Champions League quarter-final spot for Persepolis for the first time in the club’s history.
The Coach: Branko Ivankovic
Branko Ivankovic has a long history with Iranian football having first moved to the nation to work as Miroslav Blazevic’s assistant when his Croatian compatriot took over at the helm of the Iran national team in 2001. Ivankovic succeeded his former boss as Iran coach after the country narrowly missed out on qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals in Japan and Korea Republic in 2002. He successfully secured qualification for the nation in German in 2006. The 63-year-old then worked in his native Croatia as well as in Saudi Arabia and China before returning to Tehran to take over as Persepolis coach in April 2015.
Striker Mehdi Taremi follows a long line of top class attacking players who have passed through the ranks of Persepolis while also showcasing their talents for Iran’s national team on the Asian stage. The 24-year-old netted six goals in eight games during the group phase and Round of 16 in the 2017 AFC Champions League to sit in second position on the competition’s scoring charts. Taremi can play as an out-and-out striker or on the left side of the attack, as he often does for the national team in support of Sardar Azmoun, and his eye for goal has seen him attract attention from overseas.
Persepolis vs Al Ahli
(Seeb Sports Complex, Muscat)
Al Ahli vs Persepolis
(Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi)