Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez can take a significant step on Monday towards becoming the first player to win both the UEFA Champions League and its Asian equivalent. After four continental titles with Barcelona, the midfielder has one foot in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League with Al Sadd, the club he joined in 2015. The Qatari powerhouse won its quarterfinal first leg at the Iranian home of Esteghlal 3-1 in August and is ready for the return match in Doha.
“I think we can compete with the rest of the teams in Asia for the AFC Champions League title.” Xavi told the Asian Football Confederation’s website. “We now have a very good team. This season, we signed good players.” Al Sadd, champion in 2011, did the hard work in the first leg at Tehran’s famous Azadi Stadium and just needs to avoid defeat at home to progress. “I think we did well but there’s one more game,” said the 2010 World Cup winner.
“It could be just 90 minutes or it could even go to extra time. We don’t know; in football, we never know.” Should Al Sadd progress to the last four, it could face Persepolis, Esteghlal’s Tehran rival, in the same Azadi Stadium that Xavi enjoyed so much in August.
“It was an amazing atmosphere, one of the best that I have seen in my career,” Xavi said. “All the spectators were incredible. It was a great place to play football in. I was really enjoying the experience; it’s something I really liked.”
Another former star of European soccer will also be hoping to make the last four but Alexandre Pato and Tianjin Quanjian have their work cut out. The Chinese team lost its first leg to Kashima Antlers of Japan 2-0. Tianjin, who arrived in Japan a day late with heavy traffic enroute to Beijing airport leading to a missed flight, is struggling in the league with just one win in the last eight games, a run that has put pressure on coach Paulo Sousa.
To make matters worse, the club lost star player Axel Witsel to Borussia Dortmund in August after the German club triggered the Belgium international’s release clause. French striker Anthony Modeste is currently in a contract dispute with the club and has not played for over a month. Pato missed Tianjin’s 1-0 loss on Friday to Dalian Yifang with a stomach upset but should be fit to play on Wednesday.
“We know what we have to do against Kashima,” Sousa said. “We will fight until the end and in football, anything can happen.”
A tough task for the Chinese team has been made even harder as the port city club has been forced to relocate the tie around 1,205 miles (1,940 km) south to Macau due to the fact that Tianjin starts hosting the World Economic Forum on the same day.
According to Chinese media, 5,000 tickets will be given to local fans free of charge to watch the game.
The other East Asian clash, the tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final, is an all-Korean affair. Jeonbuk Motors, champion in 2006 and 2016, needs to come back from a 3-0 first leg loss at home to Suwon Bluewings.
Two goals from Dejan Damjanovic did the damage with the Montenegrin striker moving onto 34 goals in the tournament, only Lee Dong-guk of Jeonbuk has scored more with 36.