AFC Champions League: How can Saudi clubs reach knockouts?

After four games of AFC Champions League group stage, there have been mixed fortunes for Saudi Arabia’s participants in Asia’s biggest club competition. However, with four matches down and two to go until the group stage finishes, all four clubs can still qualify for the next round.

Here, Al Arabiya English explores what the Saudi Pro League clubs need to do in their remaining matches to ensure their progress to the last-16.

Al Fayha

In its first ever AFC Champions League campaign, Al Fayha is still firmly in with a shot of reaching the knockout rounds. A disappointing opening defeat to Turkmenistan’s Ahal was followed by an excellent 2-0 victory at home to Uzbek club Pakhtakor – courtesy of a well-taken brace from Morocco international Abdelhamid Sabiri.

Back-to-back defeats to Al Ain, including a 4-1 humbling by the group leaders on Matchday 3, have left Al Fayha bottom of the Group A table, but only a point behind Pakhator and Ahal, who drew this week to keep the Saudi club in the hunt. When teams can’t be separated by points, their progress is decided by head-to-head record with each other, rather than goal difference.

It means Al Fayha’s final two games against their rivals for second place in Group A will be vital to decide the final standings; realistically the 2021 King’s Cup winners will probably need to win both. Only the best three of West Asia’s five group runners-up can progress and in the 2022 AFC Champions League, nine points was the total required.

Al Ittihad

Al Ittihad’s recent woes continued this week as it was beaten 2-0 by Iraqi champions Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in Erbil. The latest in a poor run of results, it led to coach Nuno Espirito Santo being sacked on Wednesday. His replacement will take over a team in good shape in Asia, however, with Al Ittihad still top of Group C having claimed nine points from its opening three games. Its campaign began with a win over Uzbekistan’s AGMK in their first game, while on Matchday 3 it beat Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya thanks to Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah’s 94th-minute winner.

The Asian Football Confederation also ruled that the shock late postponement of Al-Ittihad’s away clash with Sepahan on Matchday 2 was the Iranians’ fault, meaning the reigning Saudi champions were handed a 3-0 victory without the game being played. Al-Ittihad has an excellent chance to seal progress to the last-16 when it faces winless AGMK in its next match; the Uzbek outfit has shipped 17 goals in four games so far. Victory in Uzbekistan would mean top spot if Sepahan fails to beat Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, though Al-Ittihad should be prepared for a winner-takes-all final clash with the Iranians in Jeddah on December 4.

Al Hilal

The current Saudi Pro League leaders narrowly avoided an embarrassing defeat to last year’s Uzbekistan Super League runners-up Navbahor in their opening Group D match after Ali Al-Bulaihi snatched an equaliser in the 10th minute of stoppage time in Riyadh. Since then, however, Al Hilal has been ruthless, both in front of goal and in defence, scoring 11 times without reply in their past three games.

Al Hilal football club. (Twitter)
Al Hilal football club. (Twitter)

In their second outing, Jorge Jesus’ side comfortably beat Iran’s AFC Champions League debutants Nassaji Mazandaran 3-0 in Tehran, before further underlining its group-winner credentials with a 6-0 thrashing of Mumbai City – courtesy of a hat-trick by Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

A less comprehensive, but equally straightforward, 2-0 victory in Mumbai cemented Al Hilal’s place at the summit of Group D, though Navbahor has proved that their draw in Riyadh was no fluke, also winning its three subsequent matches to put it on 10 points too, behind Al Hilal on goal difference only. The top-of-the-table clash in Uzbekistan in the next game will likely decide whether it is Al Hilal or Navbahor who finishes top.

Al Nassr

It has been a flawless AFC Champions League campaign for Al Nassr so far as Cristiano Ronaldo and Co have 12 points from 12 in Group E. A pair of thrilling victories over Qatar’s Al-Duhail have now put Al Nassr in pole position to qualify as group winners.

Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane. (X @AlNassrFC_eng)
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane. (X @AlNassrFC_eng)

Al Nassr’s fourth win in a row came this week courtesy of a three-goal salvo from Talisca. The Brazilian was suspended from Saudi Pro League action last weekend and appeared like a coiled spring in Qatar, claiming a match-winning hat-trick to secure a 3-2 win. It was agony again for Al-Duhail, who had been undone by a second-half brace by Al-Nassr captain Ronaldo in a narrow 4-3 reverse in Riyadh on Matchday 3.

Arguably the pick of the results so far, however, was Al-Nassr’s battling 2-0 win away to Persepolis in the opening match, with the visitors helped significantly by the game being played behind closed doors instead of in front of a partisan capacity crowd of 78,000 at Tehran’s iconic Azadi Stadium.

Al Nassr is now almost certain to qualify, likely as group winners after second-placed Persepolis could only manage a draw with Tajikistan minnows Istiklol this week. It means that Luis Castro’s side only needs to draw at home to Persepolis next time out to secure its status as Group E winners.

Related Articles

Back to top button