Sharjah’s players attend a training session ahead of their ACL match against Air Force.
Mohammad Abdullah, Staff Reporter
Aiming to boost their Round of 16 qualification hopes, Sharjah will lock horns with Air Force club of Iraq in their AFC Champions League match on Tuesday.
There is only one berth assigned to each group for the automatic qualification. Sharjah are leading Group B after collecting eight points from their four outings.
Sharjah’s form has put them in the pole position to advance to the knockout stages of the prestigious continental competition.
Sharjah, who are still unbeaten in the tournament, have won two and drawn two matches so far. But Iran’s Tractor are keeping hot on their heels.
A win for Sharjah coupled with a defeat of Tractor against Pakhtakor on Tuesday, will hand the hosts an automatic qualification.
Sharjah have eight points in their kitty with two games left. If they win both the matches, they will automatically qualify for the next round with 14 points.
In case, Sharjah and Tractor both win their respective matches on Tuesday, then the last clash between them slated for April 29 will be the decider.
Sharjah will move on to 11 points while Tractor will also have nine points. A draw or a win in the last game will hand Sharjah an automatic qualification to the next round while Tractor will need at least a victory to punch their ticket through to the Round of 16.
A depleted Sharjah, who had been playing with a makeshift squad so far, are still unbeaten. Key players like Igor Cornado, Al Hasan Saleh missed the first three games.
Sharjah have been bolstered by the return of the talismanic Igor and Saleh to the fold. Igor was substituted by coach Abdulaziz Anbari in the last game against Pakhtakor to give him some match practice in the last six minutes.
“We are well prepared for our second match against Air Force. They are a good team and we expect a tough fight in a very crucial game against them as we are aspire for a direct qualification,” said Anbari.
Anbari also lauded his medical team and coaching staff for keeping the players fit amid a tight schedule.
“The biggest challenge for us is to keep the players fit amid the jam-packed fixtures as we are playing one match almost every third day. So, it is very difficult for the players to be physically fit after putting in so much of hard work. But the medical and coaching staff of the team have done an excellent job to meet the challenge,” he added.
“The players have also responded well to the recovery process after every game. They have shown an appetite and passion for the game,” informed Anbari.
Praising the team for setting the tone with a victory in the beginning of the tournament in the absence of key players, Anbari said: “The players have taken the onus of taking the team through to the next round on their shoulders in the absence of seniors. We are here to represent the UAE and not only Sharjah at the continental level,” he elaborated.
Air Force will play to salvage some pride as they are out of contention. Coach Ayman Odisho hopes to end the campaign on a winning note.
“Both the remaining games are very important. It is more important for Sharjah as they seek a direct qualification. I hope everyone will try to give his best in these two matches,” said Odisho.
“Emotions will be high, but I hope players will control their adrenalin flow and stay focused. We want to finish the campaign on a high,” he added.
In the other match of the day, Pakhtakor will square off against Tractor, who are the other top contenders and pushing hard for an automatic qualification. Tractor will not only look to beat Pakhtakor but also hope for Sharjah to lose so that they can surpass the leaders and turn the heat on hosts ahead of the last game.
Pakhtakor, who were the quarter-finalists last year, are virtually out of the race but still have a chance mathematically. But for that, they will have to depend on the results of the other teams.
If, both Sharjah and Tractor lose their next matches and the last game to be played between them ends in a draw while Pakhtakor go on to win their remaining two matches then they can have an outside chance of qualifying directly for the next round. Pakhtakor will be tied with Sharjah on nine points each and the goal difference will decide the top spot.
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