Sharjah players attend a training session ahead of their AFC Champions League match against Air Force of Iraq. Courtesy: Twitter
Mohammad Abdullah, Staff Reporter
Sharjah will look to capitalise on the home advantage when they take on Iraq’s Air Force club in their AFC Champions League match on Wednesday.
Sharjah will play host to Group B, with all 12 matches to be held at the 18,000-capacity stadium. The venue hosted six matches in the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. A total of four teams will fight it out to book their berths in the next round of the continental competition.
In an early kick-off on Wednesday at the Sharjah Stadium, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor will face Tractor FC of Iran. Sharjah are at the top of their group and will be favourites to win against their Iraqi counterparts.
Sharjah coach Abdulaziz Al Anbari is confident of putting up a tough fight against the three-time AFC Champions Cup winners on their home ground.
“It is always an advantage to play at your home turf. We will look to capitalise on that advantage and exploit the conditions. But without fans in the stands, this will not be of the same magnitude,” said Anbari.
Sharjah, who started their Arabian Gulf League (AGL) campaign on a stellar note, faltered midway and slipped to the fourth spot after leading the standings for more than ten rounds. They are eight points adrift of the leaders Al Jazira, who have 50 points.
Anbari ruled out that their faltering performance in the domestic league will have any bearing on their continental aspirations.
“Losing in the AGL is different. Both the tournaments are quite different from each other. We had some injuries that hampered our performance in the league. But I am sure, it will have no bearing on our performance in the Asian Champions League matches,” said Anbari.
Sharjah have outstanding individuals and home advantage but haven’t reached the knockout stage since 2004. But their coach Anbari asserted they were confident of breaking that jinx and reaching the next stage.
“All the teams from are Iraq are good but Air Force have already stamped their authority on the continental level by winning the AFC Champions Cup three times.
“This makes them an outstanding outfit and a team to beat. They have a long unbeaten streak in their domestic league. We are confident of putting up a good fight and booking our berth in the next stage,” said Anbari.
Sharjah will play six matches in the next 15 days, which boils down to an average of one game every two-and-half days.
“We have a jam-packed schedule. We are playing one match almost every third day. But we are well prepared for that and hope to cope up with the pressure well,” concluded Anbari.
Due to the pandemic, all the sporting activities were either cancelled or postponed. To clear the backlog and accommodate the current matches, all the games have been crammed into a jam-packed calendar.
Meanwhile, Air Force coach Ayoub Odisho played down their achievement of winning AFC Champions Cup three times in a row and said their focus is on ACL matches.
“It is a very important match, moreover because we are playing against the host and the leader of the group. Though, we have won the AFC Cup three times in a row. But both competitions are important, and the AFC Champions League is a competition of a different level.
“We will be up against the teams, who are the champions in their respective leagues. We need to take each and every match seriously and do our best,” said Odisho.
Apprising about their line-up, Odisho boasted of having local players in their squad.
“Unlike the other teams in the competition, we rely more on our domestic players. We have only two foreign players and eight players, who ply their trade in the Iraq national team. They bring a lot of experience to the squad,” he informed.
“We know Sharjah well and have seen them playing on TV before coming here. The pressure is always there. It is the pressure and criticism that motivates us to do better and emerge winners,” asserted Odisho.
“No coach can be successful without pressure or criticism, so we are hoping to transform this pressure into responsibility to carry in matches and play well.”
Al Wahda are the other UAE side, who will be in action on Wednesday. They will take on Iran’s Persepolis.
Persepolis, having lost the 2018 and 2020 AFC Champions League finals, will be aiming for the title while Al Wahda will be out to make up for a lost opportunity after having been forced to withdraw from last year’s competition due to a COVID-19 outbreak in their squad.
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