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Winfried Schaefer says Al-Hilal are 'favorites' for AFC Champions League clash with Esteghlal

Winfried Schaefer feels his Esteghlal side are underdogs for the game with Al-Hilal. (AFP)
DUBAI: Esteghlal may be one of the most successful teams in Asian football history but the Iranian giants are claiming underdog status ahead of their AFC Champions League clash with Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
Both teams have lifted the continental title twice but neither has won the Champions League since its formation in 2003. That Al-Hilal reached the final in 2014 and 2017 means they are the team to beat, according to Esteghlal coach Winfried Schaefer.
“Al-Hilal impressed last year in the AFC Champions League and they have done so far again this season,” Schaefer told Arab News. “They’re favorites. I think they know that too. They’re physically strong and they are full of players who have a good technique. They’re very confident and we know that we have to be at our very best. It is important that our players are aggressive and positive.”
Esteghlal watched Al-Hilal’s 0-0 draw with Al-Ain in the opening round of games last week and spotted a few chinks in the armor of Ramon Diaz’s side.
“I don’t want to point out their weakness just before we play each other,” said Schaefer. “But I’m confident we found a few weak aspects of their game that may benefit us. They are missing players, too.”
Al-Hilal are not only without star striker and AFC Player of the Year Omar Khribin but are also missing Salem Al-Dawsari, on loan in Spain, and playmakers Carlos Eduardo and Nawaf Al-Abed. Midfielder Salman Al-Faraj is also expected to miss the game. According to Riyadh media, former Bolton Wanderers star Ali Al-Habsi will play in goal instead of Abdullah Al-Maiouf.
In the opening round of games last week, Esteghlal, who are waiting on a couple of minor injury issues, had to be content with a 2-2 draw against Al-Rayyan of Qatar. It should have been better according to the German as his team enjoyed 62 percent of possession but had to rely on a late Ali Ghorbani goal to come away with a point.
“I can’t be happy with our finishing and that’s a problem that has followed us from the league. But on the other hand, I’m of course very happy regarding our team spirit, our performance in general. We made two mistakes and Al Rayyan was clever enough to use them.”
— Esteghlal vs. Al-Hilal, Seeb Stadium, Oman, Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. kick-off.