Persepolis, Esteghlal look to break Iran's title drought in the AFC Champs League

With three AFC Asian Cup titles and four FIFA World Cup appearances since 1998, Iran can consider itself a powerhouse in Asia football. The narrative for its club teams, however, has been a little different.

It has been almost three decades the last time a football club from Iran has won a title in Asia. In 1993, Mohsen Garousi struck the winner against Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab to give the Asian Club Championship title to PAS Tehran in Bahrain. Iranian teams has reached four finals since 1993 but ended up second-best on each occasion with Persepolis FC losing in 2018 and 2020.

The Red Army's first run into the final was under Branko Ivankovic and ended in a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Japan's Kashima Antlers. It was a different manager, but the same outcome last season when Yahya Golmohammadi's side fell to South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 in the finals.

Could this be the year an Iran Pro League club finally get their hands on the coveted trophy? At the halfway stage of the group stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League, the signs are that the Iranian clubs, especially Persepolis, could become the biggest challengers for the trophy from West Asia this season.

Golmohammadi's men are the only side left in West Asia with a perfect after claiming three wins from three matches. Persepolis' latest triumph was a comeback win against ACL newcomers FC Goa who had punched above their weight in their opening fixtures but suffered their first defeat against a vastly experienced Iranian side.

Last season's finalists were stunned by a historic goal from Goa captain Edu Bedia just 14 minutes in, but Persepolis reclaimed the lead inside 10 minutes with a quickfire double and then played out the remainder of their Group E meeting hardly breaking a sweat.

In fact, Persepolis look even stronger this term with veteran Jalal Hosseini and Hossein Kanaanizadegan making up for the departure of Shoja Khalilzadeh -- who was influential last season. Mehdi Torabi's return after a short stint with Qatar's Al Arabi SC has added more potency in attack from the wide positions.

Issa Alekasir and Shahriyar Moghanlou, on loan from Portuguese top division outfit CD Santa Clara, could create a formidable partnership upfront with the latter scoring a brace against Al Rayyan. Alekasir, who missed last season's final due to a ban, won the penalty from which his side levelled against hosts Goa.

Esteghlal are also not too far behind. Persepolis' fierce crosstown rivals are currently second in a difficult Group C after a 4-3 defeat to Al Duhail SC in their third outing. But, the Capital Blues are only one point behind the leaders from Qatar after scoring big victories over Al Ahli Saudi FC and Al Shorta SC in their first two matches.

Key to their impressive displays so far has been their young attacking midfielder Mehdi Ghaedi who already has two goals and an assist to his name. Esteghlal have been overshadowed by their rivals Persepolis in Asia during recent times with a third-place finish in 2013 the closest they have come to winning the ACL.

But, with Ghaedi getting ample support from Farshid Esmaeili in the midfield and with former Mali international striker Cheick Diabate displaying good form in the group stages, you wouldn't want to bet against Esteghlal making a deep run in ACL this season and perhaps even ending the Asian Champions League drought for Iran.