The AFC Champions League 2021 will be the first edition to feature an Indian team with FC Goa making it to the group stages by finishing in the top of ISL 2019-20. As expected, Goa is drawn with some challenging opponents who showcase the standard of the Champions League. Iranian powerhouses Persepolis, Qatar Stars League runners up Al-Rayyan are big names in Asian football. Al-Wahda of UAE and Al-Zawraa of Iraq are equally competitive. These teams boast of having some great players, both domestic and foreigners whose standards is something to watch out for. Here we take a look at the top 5 players that FC Goa are likely to face in the AFC Champions League.
5. Abdulaziz Hatem (Al-Rayyan)
The midfielder is one of the best in Qatar, known for his ball skills and playmaking. The 30 year old joined Al-Rayyan in 2019 and it will be his third outing in the Champions League group stages. He started his career with Al-Arabi in 2007, playing for eight years with them. Al-Arabi played in the 2012 AFC Champions League where Hatem made 3 appearances. In 2015, he joined Al-Gharafa with whom he featured in the 2018 AFC Champions League where he played all six matches in the group stage with a goal and assist.
Born in Qatar, the Sudanese origin central midfielder made his debut for Qatar at just 19. In the 11 year long national career, he has made 42 appearances scoring 4 goals. The best moment of his national career came in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Not just with his dynamic midfield role, he also scored two crucial goals including a stunning strike in the final against Japan, to help Qatar become Champions of Asia. He has been a regular for the national team and he also played the World Cup qualifier in 2019 in which India managed a hard fought draw.
He has been in good form in the current season of the QSL with 4 goals and 1 assist. He is a dynamic player who is hard to mark and makes crucial runs from the midfield. The opponents will have a challenging task in playing against him.
4. Tim Matavž (Al-Wahda)
A natural goalscorer, Tim Matavž had been on the scoring charts from a very young age. He was signed by Dutch side Groningen that produced the likes of Arjen Robben. He was one of the bright young prospects of Europe at that time. He made over 100 appearances for the Eredivisie side notching up 46 goals. The young striker soon made the national team roster for Slovenia and in 2011, he moved to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven. He scored 44 goals in 102 games over three seasons.
He has also had stints with Bundesliga clubs Augsburg, Nürnberg and Genoa of Serie A. Matavž has played for Slovenia in 38 matches and scored 11 goals. He has also played with Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak as his national teammate. The tall and strong forward continued his goalscoring form after returning to Eredivisie in 2017 signing for Vitesse. He managed 41 goals in three seasons. He was signed by Al-Wahda in 2020 and the Slovenian has been in fine form since then. He already has 6 goals in 8 matches in the current season of the UAE Gulf League. Matavž will be the main target man for Al-Wahda and if they are to make it to the group stage, it won’t be a surprise to see him in the goalscoring charts.
3. Gabriel Mercado (Al-Rayyan)
Gabriel Mercado is one of the big names in the Al-Rayyan side and the QSL. Playing as a right back for most of his career, Mercado dons the centre back position for the Qatari side. He had a successful time in the Argentine league before moving to Europe. With Estudiantes, he won the Argentine Primera Division in 2010. Later in 2012, he signed for the Argentine giants River Plate. He went on to have a successful four year sojourn with them winning 6 titles including the 2015 Copa Libertadores, the premier club competition in the Americas equivalent to the AFC Champions League in Asia.
Mercado has played in youth national teams for Argentina, the biggest moment of it came when he won the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup. That Argentine squad also featured future stars like Sergio Agüero and Angel Di Maria. Mercado moved to Sevilla in 2016, the same year in which Argentina finished runners up in the Copa America Centenario, which was his first major senior tournament. He was the first choice right back in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Argentina crashed out in the round of 16 to eventual winners France 3-4, in which Mercado found the net once. Mercado made the move to Al-Rayyan in 2019 and has been the first choice centre back since then. The 33 year old veteran’s experience will be of great value to the Qatari side.
2. Paul-José M’Poku (Al-Wahda)
The winger from Democratic Republic of Congo is a well known name in Belgian side Standard Liège of the Belgian League for a total of 7 years making 196 appearances and scoring 41 goals. He moved to Belgium at an young age and was a part of the Standard Liège youth system. He then signed with Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in 2009. After two years in the club without making a professional appearance, he moved back to Standard Liège.
He represented Belgium in youth national teams from U15s to U21s scoring regularly for them. M’Poku however chose to represent his country of birth DR Congo, making his international debut in 2015. He played in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations finishing with 2 goals in the tournament. M’Poku had stints with Cagliari and Chievo Verona in Italy after he left Standard Liège. He returned in 2017, playing for another three years for the Belgian club.
He was signed by UAE Gulf League side Al-Wahda in 2020. The 28 year old winger, who can also play as a number ten has been in good form in the current season. He has 5 goals in 12 this season and he will be a threat to the opposition with his attacking mindset.