By Michael Church
HONG KONG, April 12 (Reuters) – Persepolis have fallen at the Asian Champions League final stage twice in three years but, four months after losing last season’s decider, the Iranians will on Wednesday start to rekindle their hopes of claiming the biggest prize in Asian football.
Yahya Golmohammadi’s side returns to the continental fray after slipping to defeat by South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai in the 2020 final two seasons after losing to Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
The Tehran club faces a tricky Group E opener against Henk Ten Cate’s Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates in Margoa.
The Indian city is one of four venues hosting games across five groups in the west of the continent, with matches being held in biosecure bubbles due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riyadh will stage two groups while fellow Saudi Arabian city Jeddah, as well as Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, will host one each in a competition that has grown from 32 to 40 teams.
Clubs have been drawn across 10 groups with five playings in the west and five in the east. Matches in the east are scheduled to begin in June.
Only the group winners are guaranteed to reach the last 16 alongside the six teams with the best runners-up records – three from the east and three from the west.
Persepolis has also been drawn with Group E hosts FC Goa and Al Rayyan from Qatar, with the Iranians, favored to advance.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, the only west Asian team to win the title in the last nine years, return to the competition after being kicked out last year during the group phase due to a rash of positive COVID-19 tests.
Rogerio Micale’s team take on Shabab Al Ahli from the UAE, newcomers Istiklol from Tajikistan, and AGMK of Uzbekistan in Group A in Riyadh while Sharjah hosts Group B, which features Iran‘s Tractor, Pakhtakor from Uzbekistan, and Air Force of Iraq.
Jeddah’s Al Ahli hosts Group C, which includes Qatar’s Al Duhail, Iranians Esteghlal, and Al Shorta of Iraq, with Group D containing Al Sadd from Qatar, Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s Al Wehdat, and Foolad from Iran playing in Riyadh.
Group matches begin on Wednesday and will continue until April 30, with the knockout phase due to start in September.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Ken Ferris)