Minerva to make maiden continental foray, play Saipa of Iran in AFC Champions League prelims
Woefully out of sorts in the domestic I-League season, Minerva Punjab FC will make their maiden continental foray when they take on Iranian side Saipa FC in a preliminary round match of the AFC Champions League in Tehran on Tuesday.
Minerva, who got the chance to play in this preliminary stage of Asia’s elite club competition as 2017-18 I-League winners, have been struggling whole of this domestic season with just three wins from 16 matches while losing eight games.
They are ninth in the 11-team I-League standings and it will require a vastly improved show at the Shahr-e Qods Stadium if they want to advance further in the continental tournament.
Saipa are playing the continent’s premier club competition for only the second time. Their previous appearance came in 2008 when they reached the quarter-finals where they lost over two legs to FC Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan. To the good fortune of Minerva, the Saipa side have also not been exactly doing well in the Iranian top division club competition, the Persian Gulf Pro League. They are currently at 10th spot out of 16 teams with just four wins from 16 matches.
This Tehran club, owned by an Iranian automobile manufacturing company, last won the country’s top division title in 2006-07 and since then have been a mid-table finisher till their fourth place outing in 2017-18.
Like Minerva in the Indian context, Saipa is known to have one of the best youth academies in Iranian football and regularly promotes academy players to the first team.
The club is currently coach by Iranian legend Ali Daei who is the all-time highest goal scorer in the history of international football with 109 strikes from 149 matches from 1993 to 2006. He has coached Saipa earlier also (2006-08) and has been at the helm of affairs since last season.
Saipa do not boast of Iranian international players and there is only one foreigner in the squad, Ghanaian international defender Samuel Sarfo.
If Minerva win on Tuesday, they will face Qatari side Al Rayyan SC in the play-off match in Doha on February 19. If they lose, they still have an automatic berth in the AFC Cup, the second tier continental club competition.