Two games down in the group stage of the AFC Champions League and four to go. There is still time to recover from poor starts while the finish line, in the shape of the second round, will be coming into view for those with maximum points. Here are five things we learned from Matchday Two.
1. Al-Faisaly pick up the result of the round
Al-Faisaly 2 Al-Sadd 1. It is one of the best results in the history of the Saudi Arabian club. This was just their second-ever game in this tournament and they have defeated one of the favorites. Al-Sadd dominate the Qatar Stars League and are star-studded with Santi Cazarlo among the best players in Asia supported by a number of the Qatar national team, the reigning Asian champions, as well as Algerian goal machine Baghdad Bounedjah.
It was looking ominous when Hassan Al-Haydos gave the 2011 champions an early lead following an incisive move but the Dammam men were soon level thanks to Hicham Faik, a fine header from a perfect Martin Boyle cross. The Dutchman turned provider early in the second half with a magnificent long pass which fed Julio Tavares, though the Cape Verde striker still had some work to do to grab the winner. Then there was some doughty defensive work to be done and Al-Faisaly were well-organized and hard-working.
There had been concerns after the 1-1 draw in the opening game against Al-Wehdat that the Saudi team would come to regret, dropping two points with tougher tests to come. There is still a lot of work to do but the team have shown that they have what it takes to get out of Group E.
2. Local stars keep Al-Hilal perfect and ominous.
Al-Hilal picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Rayyan to make it two wins out of two and already the defending champions are looking good to get out of Group A and more besides. There was no Odion Ighalo or Matheus Pereira and — thanks to the injury sustained in the opening victory over Sharjah — no Saleh Al-Shehri. The others stood up. Abdullah Al-Hamdan has not played that much of late but grabbed the opener, a real striker’s goal with a first-time low shot from just inside the area.
Midfielder Mohamed Kanno then scored a striker’s goal of his own soon after the restart, chesting the ball down and then volleying home soon after the restart. And then there was Nasser Al-Dawsari to grab his first goal since his spectacular first minute strike in the final against Pohang Steelers last November.
With such strength in depth, Al-Hilal look head and shoulders above the rest and will take some stopping. Next comes back-to-back games against Istiklol. Even though they have lost both games so far, the meeting with the Tajikistan powerhouse should be interesting as they defeated Al-Hilal 4-1 last year and ended up winning the group.
3. Al-Shabab show their continental credentials
It has been seven years since Al-Shabab last appeared in the Asian Champions League but you would never know as they strolled past Al-Jazira 3-0, with two goals from Carlos and another from in-form midfielder Turki Al-Ammar. The meeting with the team from the UAE was supposed to be the toughest in Group B but at the moment, the Whites are on course for top spot with six points from the two games as well as six goals scored and none conceded. They are now three points clear ahead of back-to-back games against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq.
These are early days but there is no reason why Al-Shabab can’t go very deep into this competition. Their defense has looked very solid and they have the attacking talent to score goals against Asian opposition. They may not quite have the quality over the course of a season at home to win the league title but in a tournament situation, Al-Shabab can beat anyone.
4. No complaints for Al-Taawoun but …
It took a late goal for the Saudi side to win their opener last week and on Sunday they lost 1-0 to a last strike from Pakhtakor. In truth, there can be no complaints from Al-Taawoun as they lost to a better side who had chances. The home team, without star striker Leandre Tawamba, struggled to get going in an offensive sense and rarely troubled the Uzbekistan powerhouse. The Cameroonian star will be back for the next game and will be needed.
It was a little frustrating however that the Buraidah team held out until the final few minutes before conceding. After two games in the group, all three teams have three points. Had it ended goalless then Al-Taawoun would be in a decent position. Now come two crucial back-to-back ties with Sepahan of Iran. If there is to be a chance of going through, the Saudi Arabians need some more points on the board before they deal with the dangerous Al-Duhail and a return match with Pakhtakor.
5. West looking like the best
Overall, it looks as if the team that lifts the trophy next February will come from the western half of the tournament. Until recently that would have been a strange thing to write, especially before the eastern zone has kicked off. China, Japan and South Korea had dominated the Champions League for years but times have changed. Two of the four Chinese teams have withdrawn before a ball has been kicked. There are still contenders from Korea and Japan but at the moment, they don’t look to have the strength in depth of a team like Al-Hilal or Al-Sadd.
At the moment, a third triumph in four years for West Asia looks more likely than the east coming back.
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