Saudis on course: 5 things we learned from Matchday 5 of AFC Champions League group stages
The penultimate round of matches in the group stage of the Asian Champions League was a thrilling one, with all Saudi teams still in with a chance to reach the knockout stages. Here are five things we learned from the latest action.
1. Al-Shabab have sent Asia a message
Al-Shabab needed a win to secure a place in the second round and they got it in style with a 6-0 thrashing of the unfortunate Mumbai City. It means that after five games, the Whites have 13 points with 16 goals scored and just one conceded. Only Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal can match such a performance.
The game wasn’t as one-sided as the scoreline suggests. Some credit should be given to goalkeeper Fawaz Al-Qarni who made a magnificent double save early in the game to keep the Indians from taking the lead.
Such heroics laid the foundation for what happened next with the rest of the evening belonging to the excellent Hatten Bahebri who scored a fine hat-trick. He gave the Saudi Arabian team the lead after 19 minutes and when Mourtada Fall put into his own net before the break, there was no coming back for Mumbai.
It meant that Al-Shabab have roared into the knockout stages. The one downside is that they won’t be able to play those games until early next year. This momentum will have long dissipated by then and it remains to be seen how similar the team is. That is for the future, however. For now, Al-Shabab will be delighted.
2. Al-Hilal streak ends, but they can still help domestic rivals
A 2-2 draw with Sharjah ended the 12-match winning streak that was the second-longest in the club’s history and is the first time that coach Ramon Diaz has failed to achieve a victory since returning as head coach in February. It is not something to worry about as the defending champions had already secured a place in the second round.
It was far from a classic performance against the Emirate team. Many thought that the stars would be rested, but most of the changes came in defense. That was perhaps why Sharjah were able to take a two-goal lead into the break as Al-Hilal fell asleep for the first strike and then struggled to clear their lines for the second. There was a rally after the break as a more cohesive team pushed forward, and once they got a goal back, a real poacher’s strike from defender Muteb Al-Mufarrij, an equalizer was always on the cards and so it proved thanks to a late penalty converted by Salem Al-Dawsari.
Al-Hilal have a game left, and if they can defeat Al-Rayyan of Qatar, then they will be doing Al-Taawoun a big favor in the battle to be one of the three best second-place teams. If Al-Rayyan lose and Al-Taawoun win, then the Saudi club will be certain of a place in the last 16.
3. Boyle’s late show keeps Al-Faisaly on course
A 1-1 draw with Al-Wehdat may look like two points dropped, but it could have been worse for Al-Faisaly. After 90 minutes of not that much happening, the Jordanian club took the lead with a fine header from Ahmed Sariweh, and the Saudi Arabian hopefuls were slipping off their perch. But then up popped Martin Boyle — the Australian having been Al-Faisaly’s biggest threat all evening — at the far post to volley home what could be a crucial goal.
It means that the debutants stay on top of Group E, a point above Nasaf Qarshi. It also means that the Dammam club control their own destiny. If they beat Al-Sadd in the final game, then they win the group. That would have felt like a daunting task at the start of the tournament but the Qatari powerhouse, dominant at home, have been abject in Asia and are already out of the running. It could be a big night in the history of Al-Faisaly before they get back to the less glamorous business of avoiding relegation.
4. Al-Taawoun blow it but are still in with a chance
It was a thrilling game for the neutral, but Al-Taawoun took a 3-1 lead against Al-Duhail and ended up losing 4-3, conceding two goals in the final minutes. What was impressive was the way the Saudi Arabian team recovered from conceding an early goal to score three times before the break, but three goals in the second half gave the Qataris three points and a place in the second round.
The game was between two teams with defensive weaknesses but considerable firepower. The winning goal will not go down well in Buraidah, however, with Almoez Ali, left unmarked at the far post, to head home and deprive the hosts of a valuable point.
All is not lost, however. The only way to the last 16 is as one of the three best runners-up of the five groups. A win in the final game against Pakhtakor Tashkent will probably be enough, though it will depend on other results. The Uzbekistan team won 1-0 earlier in the group, but that is the only victory to their name and now they are out of the running.
5. Resurgent Shabab Al-Ahli flying flag for UAE
It hasn’t been a great tournament so far for clubs from the UAE. Al-Jazira and Sharjah are already out of the running.
That seemed to be the situation with Shabab Al-Ahli as well. The Dubai club drew their first three games and came from behind in each to do so with two of those equalizers coming in injury time.
After finding their feet, however, they have really moved up a gear, and the 8-2 thrashing of Al-Gharafa — the Qataris were top of the group at the time of the meeting — will live long in the memory. It was followed by a more functional victory over Ahal, which now means that a point in the final game against Foolad will almost certainly translate to a place in the second round where they would be the only team flying the flag for the UAE.
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