Al Ittihad and Sepahan Seek Last 16 Places in AFC Champions League

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Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Iran’s Sepahan have qualification for the last 16 of the AFC Champions League in their own hands as the duo put their 100% group stage records on the line on Wednesday.

Two-time winners Al Ittihad entertain Al Wahda of the UAE at the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah in Group C, while 2007 runners-up Sepahan travel to Doha to face Al Gharafa in Group A with both sides seeking a fourth consecutive win in the competition.

Al Ittihad, though, know they will have to fight for the three points after winless Al Wahda put up a spirited fight in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago before eventually succumbing as the visitors walked away with a 3-0 win.

Coach Antonio Oliveria will be forced into making one change due to the suspension of midfielder Saud Khariri, who has played every minute in the group stage, while Al Wahda will be without defensive duo Basheer Al Hammadi and Hamdan Al Kamali.

While Al Ittihad need just a point to secure passage to the last 16, the battle for the second qualification spot is wide open with winless trio Al Wahda, Bunyodkor and Piroozi all locked on two points at the halfway stage.

And with Al Wahda faced with the tricky trip to Saudi Arabia, Piroozi will look to stake a claim for a place in the knockout stage with a first win of the campaign against Bunyodkor in Tehran after the pair played out a drab goalless draw in Tashkent at the start of April.

Piroozi duo Gholamreza Rezaei and Mazyar Zare, who scored in the 3-1 opening day defeat by Al Ittihad, are available to return after being suspended for the trip to Tashkent.

The task for reigning Iran Pro League champions and current leaders Sepahan is complicated by having to travel to Qatar, although Amir Ghalenoei’s side will also be confident of securing a place in the last 16 with two games to spare after recording a 2-0 home win over Al Gharafa two weeks ago.

Al Gharafa’s bid to keep their qualification hopes alive is further complicated by the absence of suspended striker Mirghani Babiker and midfielder Bilal Abdulrahman.

While there is a three-way battle for second place in Group C, Al Hilal are in pole position in Group A with the recently crowned Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Cup winners holding a five point cushion over Al Gharafa and Al Jazira after beating the UAE side 3-1 at home ahead of the return fixture in Abu Dhabi.

In the East, unbeaten Tianjin Teda can strengthen their position at the top of Group E with victory over winless Melbourne Victory in Australia, while Gamba Osaka will look to make full use of home advantage against Jeju United.

Tianjin kicked off the campaign with wins over Jeju and 2008 champions Gamba before sharing a 1-1 draw with Melbourne two weeks ago to create a four point cushion over third-placed Gamba.

But Tianjin, who beat defending champions Shandong Luneng 3-1 last Friday to move up to third place in the Chinese Super league, will have to do without Marko Zoric after the Serbian defender was sent-off against Melbourne following a reckless second half challenge after opening the scoring after 15 minutes.

With the draw against Tianjin representing Melbourne’s first point of the campaign, the Victory must pick up more points in their first of back-to-back home games at Docklands Stadium to remain in the hunt for qualification for the last 16 for the first time.

After recording a 2-1 comeback win over the Japanese side at the start of April, Jeju will look to strengthen their position at Expo '70 Stadium, while 2008 champions Gamba will seek to put their campaign back on track after back-to-back away defeats to avoid missing out on the knockout stage for the first time in four seasons.

Finally, Cerezo Osaka and Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will go head-to-head for the lead in Group G at Jeonju World Cup Stadium after the J.League tournament newcomers edged out the 2006 champions 1-0 two weeks ago.

Fresh from making a welcome return to form in the K-League at the weekend with a 6-1 thrashing of Gwangju FC, Jeonbuk will be without suspended midfielder Kim Jee-wong.

But finding a solution should not pose a problem for coach Choi Kang-hee with defender Sim Woo-yeon the only Jeonbuk player to have started in all three group stage matches.

Shandong Luneng, who have made a slow start to the defence of their Chinese Super League title, will look to capitalise on any slip ups in Korea when they entertain winless Arema Indonesia with the home side sitting just two points adrift of the leading duo after being held to a 1-1 draw by the Indonesian champions earlier this month.

But Shandong coach Branko Ivankovic must reshuffle his starting line-up with defender Yuan Weiwei and midfield duo Li Wei and Roda Antar all ruled out through suspension and midfielders Cui Peng and Wang Yongpo eligible to return.

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