Trailblazing Al Nasr boss Ivan Jovanovic is convinced he can repeat history and earn another club a debut berth in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Jovanovic, 53, came to Al Maktoum Stadium with a burgeoning reputation three years ago after he had led Cypriot minnows APOEL to a shock slot in the last-eight of Europe’s premier club competition in 2011/12. He now has a shot at doing this once again, as the Blue Wave prepare for their first ever knockout stage match in the Asian counterpart at home to Iran’s Tractor Sazi.
“When you do something for a team and it is the first time they have achieved it, it is a great satisfaction for the coach,” said the Serbian ahead of the two-legged, round-of-16 tie. “In my previous team (APOEL), we reached the quarter-finals and it was a great, great success for the team.
“To make the quarter-finals this time would be fantastic thing for Al Nasr and for me, as it would be the first time that happens.”
Nasr’s continental achievements – earned by finishing second in Group A, meaning they proceeded from the pools for the first time after two previous failed attempts – have stood in contrast to a disappointing domestic campaign.
They fell at the first hurdle during the defences of both the President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup, while their fourth-placed finish in the Arabian Gulf League may yet not be good enough to secure qualification to the ACL in 2017.
Flying Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa highlighted the importance of gaining a positive result, ahead of next Tuesday’s return in Tabriz’s Yadegar Emam Stadium.
He said: “The group was very difficult for us, but in this situation we managed to get through. We will try to win in our home to give ourselves a good opportunity in the second match.”
The visitors to Al Maktoum Stadium are also facing their opening excursion into the deep end of the tournament. They topped a strong Group C this time, edging out Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and thrashing Al Jazira. But their joy was not extended to domestic competition, a strong finish coming too late to finish higher than fourth in the 2015/16 Persian Gulf Pro League.
Coach Amir Ghalenoei – a former Iran and Al Sadd midfielder – said the fearsome summer heat in
Dubai will be a major obstacle to success in the opening clash. A roasting 34°C is expected for kick-off this evening, a difference of more than 10 degrees to temperate Tabriz. He said: “Our first opponent is the heat and second is the Al Nasr team. We are facing two opponents.
“We are going to need to play very good football to overcome these problems.
“We have our own philosophy, on one hand we want to defend well in the first half and then we need to score a goal.”
DONIS CONFIDENT HE CAN PLUG GAPING HOLE IN DEFENCE
Coach Giorgos Donis is confident Al Hilal can weather a defensive storm ahead of their round-of-16 opener against Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Saudi Arabia’s sole-remaining entrant into the 2016 AFC Champions League will be without the key trio of Kwak Tae-hwi, Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Breik when the Uzbekistan side come to Riyadh.
Donis said: “I know that football always puts you in difficult positions. It is not easy to lose three players in the defence, but we have to work on the 11 players we have.”
El Jaish supremo Sabri Lamouchi is gunning for revenge in the all-Qatar clash against Lekhwiya. The Soldiers were denied a spot in the final of the Emir’s Cup last weekend by their imminent opponents.
“Things will be different in this match,” Lamouchi said. “We have a lot of motivation to avenge our
defeat in the cup.”
Meanwhile in East Asia, Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat is not daunted by his team’s historic run to the knockouts.
“It’s the deepest we’ve had to play a game in our short history but we can’t wait for the challenge,” said the fiery ex-Australia defender, ahead of the visit of former winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
For FC Tokyo boss Hiroshi Jofuku, he wants to put his club’s domestic misery to one side against big-spending Shanghai SIPG.
He said: “We are struggling in the J. League, but we want to make a new club history in the ACL.”
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