|The dream continues for Nekounam||
TEHRAN, Having fulfilled a childhood dream by joining Esteghlal last year, Iran captain Javad Nekounam is now eyeing AFC Champions League success under former national team coach Amir Ghalenoei with the two-time continental champions.
Former Pas midfielder Nekounam returned to Iran in July last year following six seasons in Spain with Osasuna and has made an instant impact with the Tehran blues in pole position to end Sepahan’s three-year reign with just over a quarter of the Iran Pro League season remaining.
And with the two-time Asian Club Championship winners beginning their AFC Champions League campaign next week against Al Rayyan in Qatar, Nekounam and his team-mates are confident they can transfer their domestic form onto the continental stage after Esteghlal reached the Round of 16 for just the second time last season.
“The last time I played in the AFC Champions League left me with great memories. Therefore, playing in the AFC Champions League was definitely one important factor for me when deciding to join Esteghlal as I aim to succeed at the continental level with the blues,” said Nekounam, who scored four goals as Pas reached the quarter-finals in 2005.
“I have already worked with Mr. Ghalenoei with the national team and we have always had a good relationship.
“I did consult with him before joining Esteghlal and his presence on the bench is undoubtedly one of the factors behind me having joined the blues.
“Another reason for me is that I’ve always longed to play for Esteghlal since my childhood. Now my dream has come true.”
Nekounam last tasted the AFC Champions League in 2005 as Pas topped their group with an impressive unbeaten record thanks to four goals in five games from the midfielder, before the 1970 and 1991 Asian Club Championship winners lost on away goals to eventual finalists Al Ain following a 4-4 draw on aggregate.
“Nowadays football has completely changed compared with 2005. Clubs have improved a lot, more money is being invested in football and for this reason better players are playing for different teams throughout Asia,” added the 32-year-old.
“Also, teams have become more organised and disciplined in terms of planning compared to 2005. All of these reasons account for the growth of football in Asia in the past couple of years.”
Last season in the AFC Champions League, Esteghlal finished second in their group behind runaway winners Al Jazira before losing 2-0 to domestic rivals Sepahan in the last 16 having also reached the knockout stage in 2010.
And this year Esteghlal will again face UAE Pro League opposition with reigning champions and current league leaders Al Ain joining Al Rayyan and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in Group D.
“We have reviewed a match DVD from Al Rayyan. They are very strong and have very good players,” said Nekounam, who is also set to feature for Iran as Carlos Queiroz’s side resume their bid to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup against Qatar in June.
“I have some friends in the UAE who informed me Al Ain have a very strong squad and have done quite well this year in the local league up to now.
“Al Hilal have always been favorites in the AFC Champions League and this year won’t be an exception.
“We have been busy with league and cup matches in Iran which has left us with no time to concentrate on the AFC Champions League, but with my experience as captain of the national team and with several years of experience in Europe, I don’t think I’ll have any problems playing in the AFC Champions League.
“I am of the opinion that experience is a key factor in this kind of tournament and I do have sufficient experience. We are fighting on three different fronts with the league and the cup, which are of the same importance as the AFC Champions League for every member of our team.”
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