Riyadh: The final round of the AFC Champions League play-off games took place on Tuesday meaning that all 10 groups in Asia’s premier club competition are now complete. Here are five things that we learned.
1. Al-Taawoun squeeze through
In a play-off it is all about winning and Al-Taawoun won a penalty shootout 5-4 against Al-Jaish of Syria after 120 minutes of action ended 1-1.
It was expected that Al-Taawoun would have few problems getting past Al-Jaish to give the Saudi Pro League the maximum quartet in the group stage — after all, Group D is hosted in the club’s home city. But it did not quite work out that way. The visitors to Buraidah were spirited opponents who sat deep, worked hard, and looked to break the hosts’ rhythm and hit on the counter whenever possible.
It worked, as with 20 minutes remaining Mohammed Al-Wakid opened the scoring and a first appearance in Asia’s premier club competition since 2005 was suddenly on the cards. Al-Taawoun, who have only made it twice in the past — though more recently in 2017 and 2019 — hit back with 10 minutes remaining through Sumayhan Al-Nabit, and despite the home team’s best efforts after that, the game went into extra time.
The shootout was successful and reflected the fact that Al-Taawoun were the better side. Tougher tests await.
2. A mixed night for the UAE
Two teams from the UAE entered the play-offs but only one made it through. Baniyas lost 2-0 at home to Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan and it was looking as though Sharjah would also be dumped out of the tournament at the earliest of stages, but they ended up getting into Group A by the narrowest of margins.
Sharjah were regretting their missed chances when Al-Zawraa of Iraq took the lead on the hour with a fine free-kick and looked set for what would have been a famous win, but the Emirati team equalized with a penalty just two minutes from time. That meant 30 minutes of extra time, but it did not mean more goals.
In the end, however, the home team triumphed 6-5 in what was the tensest of shootouts and it was helped with Al-Zawraa having no recognized goalkeeper for the kicks as Jalal Hassan had been sent off.
Meetings with defending champions Al-Hilal await.
Baniyas, however, were disappointing and there was a sense that they underestimated the visitors from Central Asia who had just started their season. The Uzbeks looked lively from the get-go and deserved what was a clinical win.
3. Iraq, Syria teams reflect national problems
In qualification for the World Cup both Syria and Iraq are struggling at the bottom of their group but there is more to it than that. Despite some fighting performances, they have just not been able to get the results they needed.
Neither will go to Qatar but have been competitive for most of their games. They just could not find the extra quality against the big boys when it was needed.
There was something similar from their club sides on Tuesday with Al-Jaish and Al-Zawraa both losing on penalties. That always means that the matches had been tight. The shootouts were also very close.
Despite tough assignments in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both teams were winning with time running out. Yet neither were able to hang on for what would have been a famous win.
4. Iniesta (and Korean and Japanese teams) still has it
Andres Iniesta rolled back the years for Vissel Kobe, scoring first for the J1 League team in a thrilling 4-3 win over Melbourne Victory. It gave Japan four teams in the group stage and another one who will have genuine ambitions of going all the way to lift the trophy in early 2023.
Japan are looking strong with Kawasaki Frontale the dominant power at home but desperate to start showing their worth in Asia after some disappointing performances in recent times.
With Chinese teams either withdrawing or sending second-string squads to Asia, South Korea will be the other likely contender from the east. It was noticeable that 2020 champions Ulsan Hyundai defeated FC Port of Thailand 3-0 despite missing more than 10 players due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the club. The Koreans, who have won a record 12 continental titles between them, also have the maximum contingent of four and the likes of Jeonbuk Motors and Ulsan, who have won four titles between them in the past 15 years, will also be looking to the final against West Asian opposition.
5. It is time to change the play-off format
There was plenty of drama on Tuesday as teams fought to get into the group stage but there is something not quite right about the format.
There are two problems with the way it is set up. The first is that these elimination games are one-legged. This does not feel right. For reasons of basic fairness, they have to be two-legged home and away affairs, assuming of course that the competition is free from COVID-19.
The second is this: If they are to be one-legged then they should be at the home of the weaker team. It seems tough that Syrian teams have one game in Saudi Arabia, Thai sides have only one chance in South Korea, and Australian sides have to go to Japan and hope for the best.
With Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan already having ample representation in the group stage, then teams from the lower-ranked nations should be given a small advantage of playing at home. At the moment, it all favors the big boys too much.
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