AFC Champions League: How can Saudi clubs reach knockouts?

Midway through the AFC Champions League group stage, there have been mixed fortunes for Saudi Arabia’s participants in Asia’s biggest club competition. With three matches down and three to go until the group stage finishes, all four clubs can still qualify for the next round.

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


In their first ever AFC Champions League campaign, Al-Fayha are 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.

Hilal's Portuguese midfielder #08 Ruben Neves fights for the ball during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Hilal and Al-Feiha at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on August 19, 2023. (AFP)
Hilal’s Portuguese midfielder #08 Ruben Neves fights for the ball during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Hilal and Al-Feiha at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on August 19, 2023. (AFP)

This week, Al-Fayha were soundly beaten 4-1 by group leaders Al-Ain and they face the UAE giants, who have won all three games, again in their next match in Saudi Arabia. But Al-Fayha are currently third in the group, level with both Ahal and Pakhtakor on three points. 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 are probably going to need 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's Ahmed Sharahili in action with Al Hilal's Malcom and Aleksandar Mitrovic. (Reuters)
Al Ittihad’s Ahmed Sharahili in action with Al Hilal’s Malcom and Aleksandar Mitrovic. (Reuters)

With two games played, Al-Ittihad are top of Group C thanks to an impressive 3-0 home win over Uzbekistan’s AGMK in their first match and a dramatic late victory over reigning Iraqi champions Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya this week. Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah’s 94th-minute winner means in Jeddah on Monday means Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have six points from six.

While it is an impressive start for Al-Ittihad, the shock late postponement of their away clash with Iran’s Sepahan on Matchday 2 means there is a difficult match to be rescheduled. Sepahan’s opening draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in Erbil has given Al-Ittihad the initial advantage, but it is their home and away battles with the Iranians that are likely to decide whether Al-Ittihad can finish first in Group C. Next up for the reigning Saudi Pro League champions is a trip to Erbil to face Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya again.


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

Al Ittihad’s N’Golo Kante in action with Al Hilal’s Ruben Neves. (Reuters)
Al Ittihad’s N’Golo Kante in action with Al Hilal’s Ruben Neves. (Reuters)

In their second outing, Jorge Jesus’ side comfortably beat Iran’s AFC Champions League debutants Nassaji Mazandaran 3-0 in Tehran and they further underlined their group-winner credentials with a 6-0 thrashing of Mumbai City on Monday. A hat-trick from in-form Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic secured a statement victory and Mumbai will be nervously awaiting the rematch in India next time out.

A victory in India will cement Al-Hilal’s place at the summit of Group D, though Navbahor have proved that their draw in Riyadh was no fluke, also winning both of their subsequent matches to put them on seven points too. The visit to Uzbekistan may well decide whether it is Al-Hilal or Navbahor who finishes top.


Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action. (Reuters)
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action. (Reuters)

It has been a flawless start for Al-Nassr as Cristiano Ronaldo and Co have nine points from nine in Group E. Their third win in a row came in a seven-goal thriller on Tuesday as a second-half brace from captain Ronaldo handed Luiz Castro’s side a 4-3 victory over Qatar’s Al-Duhail in Riyadh.

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

Tajikstan’s Istiklol were defeated 3-1 in the second match and Al-Nassr are currently in great shape to advance to the knockout stage, with a draw away to Al-Duhail in their next match likely to mean that they would at least be among the best runners-up. With Persepolis winning their past two matches, it appears that the Iranians – as expected – will be Al-Nassr’s main rivals for top spot in Group E.

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