DUBAI // There is probably no tougher group in this season's Asian Champions League than the one in which Al Nasr were drawn.
Playing in Asia for the first time, Walter Zenga's team have been pitched alongside Sepahan, the Iranian league leaders and defending champions, the Saudi Arabian powerhouse Al Ahli and Lekhwiya, who have already sealed their second successive Qatar league title.
But Nasr have been able to earn the respect of their opponents with a couple of battling performances. In Isfahan, Sepahan were able to breach Nasr's defence just once, in the 84th minute, and Lekhwiya were defeated 2-1 in Dubai.
Zenga said: "We are in a very tough group, but I think the other three teams have now realised that Nasr will not be an easy team to topple."
Nasr will be hoping to keep that form going against Ahli tonight, despite missing the hard-working midfielder Leo Lima through suspension. To help the home side's cause, the visitors might be distracted by their league battle at home.
Ahli are called Qal'at Al-Ko'os (fortress of trophies), but they have only won two league titles, the last of which came in 1984. With two matches to go this season, they have a chance of ending that 28-year drought.
Ahli are two points behind the leaders Al Shabab and the two teams meet in the final round on April 14. Karol Jarolim, the coach of the Saudi club, acknowledges winning the Saudi league title is their priority, but warns his team are not in Dubai for a picnic.
"Of course our focus will be on winning the title at home," he said. "But we have not come here just to mark our attendance; we are here to win. The Champions League is Asia's premier competition and we, like many other clubs, are hoping to win the title."
Nasr have not won a league title since 1986 but they have been moving gradually moving towards the top under Zenga. On the flip side, the team have been earning the reputation of being a defensive unit.
"We know how Al Nasr play - they focus on defence and counter-attack," Jarolim said.
Zenga, however, points out to the number of goals Nasr have scored this season.
With five matches of the Pro League still to play, they have already equalled their aggregate from last season and their tally of 34 is the third best in the competition, with only Al Jazira (42) and Al Ain (37) having scored more.
"They accuse us of playing a defensive game only because I am Italian," Zenga said.
"If you look at some of the other teams, they play with 10 players in their own half and nobody says anything.
"This year, Al Nasr have already scored more goals than last year. So how can people say we are playing defensive football?"
Mark Bresciano leads the scoring charts for Nasr in the Pro league this season with seven goals, but there seems to be some doubt over his participation in tonight's game. Luca Toni, the Italian striker, could also be struggling to make the team, but Zenga refused comment on the availability of his injured foreign players.
"All the players are the same for me and I have full confidence in their ability," he said.
Ahli are also missing two of their important players - the Omani striker Amad Al Hosni and the Colombian defender Jairo Palomino. But with only one point from two matches, the visitors are desperate for a win.
"We are here for three points because we have only one after losing our first match and drawing the second," said Yasir Al Fahmi, the Ahli midfielder.
"So we need to start winning now. This game will mark the midway stage of the group matches and if we hope to reach the next round, we need these three points."
Nasr have three points from their two matches so far.
Abdulla Moosa, Nasr's goalkeeper and captain, believes that if his team can keep taking three points from their matches at the Maktoum Stadium they have a good chance of advancing in the tournament.
"If we want to go to the second round, we have to make sure we take all the nine points from our home matches," Moosa said. "Then, if we get one point from the away matches, we will qualify."