5 talking points ahead of AFC Champions League group stage finale

eshrag News:

The west Asian zone of the Asian Champions League ends on Tuesday and Wednesday and there are still a number of issues that need to be settled. Arab News takes a look at some of the main talking points ahead of the action, where it should be remembered that the top teams as well as the three best-placed runners-up in the five groups go into the last 16.

1. Saudi clubs close to another four-team haul

It happened in 2009, 2011 and 2019 and all four Saudi Arabian teams in the current group stage could make it into the second round again in 2022. Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab are already there but Al-Faisaly and Al-Taawoun, two teams that still have relegation worries waiting for them at home when they return to league action next month, have work to do. 

Al-Faisaly are making their debut in the tournament and doing pretty well as they sit on top of Group E, though the lead is just a single point. Al-Sadd are the final game opponents. It was expected that the Qatari powerhouse, as one of the pre-tournament favorites, would be stiff opposition The Doha club are, however, bottom of the group and out of the running after winning just one game despite a star-studded line-up containing Santo Cazorla, Andre Ayew, Baghdad Bounedjah and much of the Qatari national team. It remains to be seen how committed Al-Sadd are.

A win means Al-Faisaly will progress, and even that may not be necessary. If Nawaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan in second fail to beat Jordan’s Al-Wehdat then the Saudi team are through regardless. Al-Taawoun can’t finish first but a win against Pakhtakor, bottom of Group D and already eliminated, should be enough to secure one of the best runners-up spots.

2. Al-Rayyan can help relieve Qatari disappointment

There were four teams from Qatar that entered the tournament with Al-Sadd, who have gone through the last two seasons in the Qatar Stars League unbeaten, and Al-Duhail considered two of the front-runners to take the continental trophy. Al-Sadd have been hugely disappointing, especially in defense, with perhaps the way they dominate at home coming back to bite them in Asia. Al-Duhail, who finished a distant second to Al-Sadd in the league, have already qualified despite being in what is probably a tougher group in Asia. 

Al-Gharafa have pedigree in the continental tournament but after a bright start faded badly and are out, which means that hopes of a second team making it to the second-round rest on the shoulders of Al-Rayyan. The one-time powerhouse of Qatari football are not quite as strong these days and ended in the bottom half of the league table in the season just finished. The team have performed well in Group A, however, and are second behind Al-Hilal. A draw against the defending champions will be enough to take the place as one of the best runners-up. It won’t be easy but with the Saudi Arabians already through, there is a chance.

3. Shabab Al-Ahli can bring smile back to UAE football

UAE clubs Sharjah and Al-Jazira have collected just a combined nine points from the ten games played so far, a most disappointing performance from one of West Asia’s premier powers. It reflected the underwhelming performances that fans had seen from the national team during qualification for the 2022 World Cup. UAE may have finished third but did not exactly impress on the road to Qatar.

That journey is still not over but the chances of Shabab Al-Ahli getting to the knockout stage are better than the national team’s chances of getting to the World Cup.

As things stand, the men from Dubai sit in second in Group C with nine points, two behind the leaders Foolad from Iran. The two meet in the final game when a win for the UAE side will mean top spot. Even a draw will almost certainly be enough to take Al-Ahli through as one of the three best runners-up. In fact, if they don’t make it they only have themselves to blame. Getting to the second round will be some encouraging news for football in the country.

4. Iraq still dreaming of making history

Iraq have never had a team in the Champions League knockout stages before, but there is still hope this time around. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya have already collected seven points from the first five games to sit in second behind Al-Shabab in Group B. The race for one of the best three runners-up spots is still very much on. 

The Iraqis take on Mumbai City, currently in last place, and will be confident of taking all three points. If so then they will have to wait and see what happens in other games. The Airmen are the only team so far to take points off Al-Shabab and had the Saudi Arabians not equalized deep into stoppage time then first place would still be up for grabs.

The goals have been spread around the Iraqi team with all seven goals coming from different players. They may not have that much star power but they will be treated as heroes if they return home as the first team from the country to survive the group stage.

5. Relative new boys looking good

Jordan made their debut in the group stage of the Champions League last season with Al-Wehdat doing a good job, finishing a solid third in a tough group containing Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s Al-Sadd and Foolad of Iran. It was not a flash in the pan and the same team have been decent this season too. It is, remember, far from easy as all their games have taken place overseas. Had they been able to play in Amman with their own fans behind them, then the situation could have been even better.

A 3-1 win over Al-Sadd will be long remembered though Al-Wehdat were kicking themselves after taking the lead against Al-Faisaly in the 91st minute in the penultimate group game but still failing to take the three points. That means the second round is out of the question this time but Al-Wehdat are gaining more and more experience and are not far away in the future.

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