Debutants battle for Asian title
Debutants feature in two-legged AFC Champions League final
Tehran giants Persepolis eye long-anticipated Asian title
Kashima Antlers seek return to FIFA Club World Cup
History is set to be made regardless of who comes out on top in this year's AFC Champions League final between Iran’s Persepolis and Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
Having never previously reached the competition’s final, the two clubs are now just one step away from a maiden continental crown, as well as earning the right to represent Asia in next month’s FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018.
Persepolis enter the final hoping to translate their domestic form to the Asian stage, having won back-to back league titles over the past two seasons. Under Branko Ivankovic, the storied Tehran club are on course to return to their heady days and a long-awaited Asian crown would be a fitting mark in this new-found golden age.
Despite their lack of Asian laurels, Kashima already have a Club World Cup appearance under their belts having featured with distinction as hosts at Japan 2016. Understandably, the eight-time J.League kings are motivated not only to claim their first Asian title, but also to seal a return to the global showpiece.
Players to watch Persepolis will look to in-form goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand as they aim to keep hosts Kashima at bay in Saturday’s first leg. The 26-year-old goalkeeper came to global prominence after denying Cristiano Ronaldo from the penalty spot in IR Iran’s 1-1 draw with Portugal in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. He excelled as Persepolis reached the semi-finals in last year's AFC Champions League campaign before continuing his stellar displays this year.
Looking to ruin Beiranvand’s run of form is Yuma Suzuki who shoulders the responsibility of spearheading the attack for Kashima. The dynamic forward raised eyebrows in his Club World Cup debut at Japan 2016 by scoring a goal against Atletico Nacional, before creating havoc for Real Madrid’s all-star defence in the final. He struck four times in last year's continental campaign and despite racking up just two goals this time around, the 22-year-old has continually set-up and created space for team-mates.
Do you know? The man responsible for Persepolis's amazing run to the final is none other than former Iran boss Ivankovic, who took Team Melli to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Taking over Persepolis in 2015, the 64-year-old made an immediate impact by guiding his side to the league title during his first season in charge.
Kashima's eye-catching performances in this campaign can be attributed to Go Oiwa, a former defender who has enjoyed spells with the likes of Nagoya Grampus Eight and Kashima during his playing career. Since taking the reins in May 2017, Oiwa has successfully moulded this group who have become renown for their solid defence and resilient displays.