DUBAI // Getting their first taste of the Asian Champions League knockout stage, Al Shabab have promised to fight for the pride of UAE football when they face Esteghlal on Wednesday night.
Just crowned the Iranian league champions for the eighth time, Esteghlal will prove a formidable test for manager Marcos Paqueta's men as Shabab bid to become the first Pro League club to reach the last eight of the rejigged continental championships.
In the group stages, Esteghlal defeated Pro League champions Al Ain twice and evaluated man to man, the Iranians have the clear upper hand going into the two-legged last-16 game, with the first leg in Dubai on Wednesday and the second in Iran next week.
Every member of the Tehran-based club has played for their country at some stage and their squad includes goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati, former Osasuna star Javad Nekounam and striker Farhad Majidi.
Even their two foreign professionals – former England Under-21 and Aston Villa defender Jlloyd Samuel and Bolivian Vicente Arze – are current internationals.
Shabab, on the other hand, have only two internationals on their roster, Walid Abbas and Uzbek Azizbek Haydarov, but only one of them will be available for the game. Abbas is one of four players from the home team who will miss the game due to suspension; the others are Mohammed Marzook, Hassan Ibrahim and Mahmoud Qassim.
"It is unfortunate that we will be missing four players, but our confidence remains high," Paqueta said. We have the players who can come in and fill the void. Of course, we will also have to make sure we do not concede a goal, because otherwise we will have to play an open game in the second leg."
Issa Mohammed, the veteran Shabab defender, shared his coach's optimism and said: "Esteghlal are a strong team and they are the Iranian league champions, but this is the first time we have made the second round of the Champions League and we want to go as far as we can into the tournament.
"So the motivation is really high and the players will fight to keep the UAE flag flying. We want to go to Tehran [for the second leg] with a positive result and I am sure fans from every UAE club will come to support us."
Amir Ghalenoei, the Esteghlal coach who was a player when the Iranians last won the Asian title in 1991, is aware of how "dangerous" Shabab can be, but he has his plans for the game.
"They have a really strong midfield and they are a team that can score any time," Ghalenoei said. "So we will try to block the link between their midfield and the attackers."
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