Saudi clubs learn AFC Champions League last-16 fate

The draw for the AFC Champions League last-16 took place at the Asian Football Confederation’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, throwing up some fascinating knockout contests in the race for the continent’s biggest club football prize.

Clubs in East and West Asia remain separated until the final, but the last-16 draw has still provided some compelling looking contests – the foremost being the all-Saudi Arabian clash between Al Fayha and Al Nassr. Elsewhere, Al Ittihad faces Uzbek side Navbahor, Al Hilal takes on Iran’s Sepahan and the final West Asian match sees UAE’s Al Ain go toe-to-toe with Nasaf of Uzbekistan.

Al Ittihad (KSA) vs Navbahor (UZB)

Although Al Ittihad has struggled to defend its Saudi Pro League crown this season, the AFC Champions League has offered a welcome respite from domestic travails. The Jeddah club topped its group on 15 points, with just one defeat at the hands of Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in Erbil. Al Ittihad performed well against Uzbek opposition during the group stage, beating AGMK 3-0 in Jeddah, while Abderrazak Hamdullah’s brace secured a 2-1 away win.

New Al Ittihad coach Marcelo Gallardo will be hoping for more of the same against Navbahor, whose last trip to Saudi Arabia was its AFC Champions League group stage debut back in September. It was a positive experience for the Uzbek side as it almost snatched a shock 1-0 victory against Al Hilal until Ali al-Bulaihi’s dramatic equaliser in the 10th-minute of stoppage time salvaged a point for the Saudis.

This is new ground for Navbahor, competing in its inaugural AFC Champions League season, while Al Ittihad is a continental veteran, winning the tournament back to back in 2004 and 2005, and making it to the quarterfinals on eight occasions – including in its last appearance in 2019. Back then, Al Ittihad lost to eventual winners and old rivals Al Hilal and there could be a rematch in the last-eight this year should both teams progress.

Al Hilal (KSA) vs Sepahan (IRN)

In terms of continental pedigree, Al Hilal’s clash with Sepahan is the pick of the West Asian last-16 contests. Al Hilal is the AFC Champions League’s most successful team with four titles, while Sepahan is in its 14th season in the AFC Champions League. The Iranian club has not yet won the trophy, however, coming closest when finishing runner-up to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in 2007.

The two clubs last met in the AFC Champions League almost a decade ago, with Al Hilal losing 3-2 in Iran and winning 1-0 in Riyadh during the 2014 AFC Champions League group stage. They also met in the 2011 group stage, with the Iranians pipping Al Hilal to top spot in the table thanks to an impressive 2-1 victory in Riyadh.

Al Hilal progressed from its group this year with ease, claiming 16 points from 18 – a competition high along with South Korea’s Pohang Steelers – which included five successive victories after an opening draw. Sepahan’s progress was much more complicated after their home group match with Al Ittihad was abandoned due to political reasons, leading to the Saudis being awarded a 3-0 win. It also means Sepahan will be unable to play against Al Hilal in its own stadium, offering Jorge Jesus’ side a major advantage in the tie.

Al Nassr (KSA) vs Al Fayha (KSA)

An all-Saudi tie between Al Nassr and Al Fayha means a guaranteed participant from the Kingdom in the quarterfinals, although it is Luis Castro’s side that will be overwhelming favorites. Al Nassr had to come from behind to make it through the AFC Champions League play-offs back in September, but made light work of its group, winning four games and drawing two to finish top. Beyond the obvious threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazilian attacker Talisca was in particularly scintillating form for Al Nassr in the group stage, scoring six goals to make him the competition’s joint-top scorer.

Talisca also netted twice when Al Fayha and Al Nassr met in the Saudi Pro League in October, helping the latter to a 3-1 victory. Of 13 previous matches between the club, Al Fayha has won just once and Vuk Rašović’s team is currently 24 points behind its last-16 opponents in the table, with Al Nassr having scored 32 more league goals this season.

However, knockout football always provides beautiful uncertainty, and Al Fayha has defied the odds so far to make it to the last-16 in its first ever AFC Champions League campaign. Seemingly down and out with only three points from its first four games, Al Fayha dug deep to turn things around, beating Turkmenistan’s Ahal 3-1 at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh before thrashing Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor 4-1 in Tashkent to qualify in the final available best runner-up spot, edging out Melbourne City on goals scored.

Al Ain (UAE) vs Nasaf (UZB)

Al Ain and Nasaf complete the AFC Champions League line-up in West Asia and it is the UAE club that will be favorite to qualify after a convincing group stage performance that brought five wins in six matches. One of the competition’s most experienced clubs, Al Ain is in its 17th season in the AFC Champions League and has won the title once previously in 2003, as well as coming second twice – in 2005 and 2016.

However, recent years have not been so kind to Al Ain, finishing bottom of its group in both 2019 and 2020, and not even making it past the play-off round last time out. This is the first time in five years Al Ain will be competing in the knockout stage and legendary Argentina striker Hernán Crespo also has his side fighting for the UAE Pro League title this season too, helped by the goals of prolific Togo international Kodjo Laba.

Nasaf may have only finished second in the Uzbekistan Super League last season but it succeeded where champions Pakhtakor failed in qualifying for the last-16 of the AFC Champions League, finishing top of a group containing Al Sadd (Qatar), Sharjah (UAE) and Al Faisaly (Jordan). Nasaf’s best ever continental performance came in the last incarnation of the AFC Champions League’s predecessor, the Asian Club Championship, when the Uzbek club reached the semifinals. Since the competition changed Nasaf has generally struggled to progress from its groups, though this is its second successive knockout appearance after losing to Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab last year.

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