5 things we learned after another inconsistent day of the Saudi club’s AFC Champions League
RIYADH: The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for all three teams from Saudi Arabia.
Al-Nassr had the last 16 in sight, but stumbled on Monday, losing 2-1 to Jordan’s Al-Wehdat to slip to second in Group D, one point behind leaders Al-Sadd.
On Tuesday, Al-Hilal rebounded from their 4-1 loss to Istiklol to overtake the AGMK Uzbekistan 3-0 to remain second in Group A, tied with 11 points with their recent winners.
Al-Ahli remained in the race in Group C after a 0-0 draw with Esteghlal of Iran to leave three teams out of eight points.
Only the group winners are guaranteed access to the second round, where they will be joined by three of the top five finalists from the western zone. All three Saudi teams stand a chance, but all three could still be missing.
1. Al-Ahli’s best performance to date
The game with Esteghlal may have ended 0-0, but it was still a solid performance from Al-Ahli, the best of five they have achieved so far.
It was impressive first of all because the Jeddah giants lost 5-2 to the same Iranian opposition in the opener. This result suggested that the domestic league’s six-game losing streak would continue in Asia.
Under new coach Laurentiu Reghecampf, however, Al-Ahli turned the tide with impressive style and whatever happens in the final match, the team will return to household chores in a different state of mind, or she should do it. If Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah, who looked dangerous throughout the tournament, had worn his shooting shoes, Al-Ahli would have won and taken the lead.
Regardless of what happened against Al-Duhail in the last game, Tuesday showed Al-Ahli was going in the right direction.
2. Al-Nassr has only to blame himself
Fans must tear their hair apart at Al-Nassr who did the hard work to get into the second round before going off the rails again, losing 2-1 to Al-Wehdat.
The Riyadh club have lost five points against the bottom team in the group and if the Yellows don’t progress that will be the reason why. Beating Al-Sadd and Foolad is all well and good, but taking a single point from the Jordanians can turn out to be a crucial failure.
It would be easy to say that Al-Nassr underestimated his steadfast opponents, but in truth, they were only second best almost from start to finish.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Al-Wehdat was already out of action but that seemed to give the team some freedom and while the victory was unexpected, it was also deserved. Amman’s men were full of racing and kept their form unlike the tired-looking Al-Nassr whose attacks were laborious and lacked penetration.
Coach Mano Menezes has shown he can summon wins against the strongest sides in the squad and that’s what he needs to do in the last game against Al-Sadd.
3. Al-Hilal doesn’t look like champions … yet
After losing 4-1 to Tajikistan’s Istiklol three days earlier, another loss to opposition from Central Asia was unthinkable. This never seemed to happen as the Saudi champions were just too powerful for the AGMK of Uzbekistan and attacked with determination from the start.
The headlines will go to Bafetimbi Gomis for his perfect header that shone the light between the two games and Luciano Vietto for his opening and perfect assist for the third. But Abdullah Otayf was also quietly efficient in midfield and used the ball with intelligence and vision.
Al-Hilal have yet to find their rhythm in this tournament and don’t wear the air of the champions but they look like a team heading into the knockout stage and that’s enough for now.
4. Teams start to look tired
It would be strange if there was not great fatigue in all the teams given that they have played five games in less than two weeks.
What’s a bit surprising is that there hasn’t been as much rotation coming from the coaches, and the overall game-to-game changes haven’t materialized as much as expected.
In the last 15-20 minutes against Esteghlal, Al-Ahli was dead on their feet. Al-Nassr, too, couldn’t match Al-Wehdat for his energy in his defeat and the players’ fitness is sure to have a major impact in the final 90 minutes of the group stage.
5. The situation is now clear to all
If all three Saudi teams win, all three will pass.
Al-Nassr’s task is now clear. Only victory against Al-Sadd in the final match will guarantee a place in the last 16. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, after all, the Riyadh giants beat the same opposition just a few days ago.
Al-Sadd, however, has improved since then and is more like the team that went through the undefeated Qatari season. A draw may be enough for Al-Nassr, but they will have to wait and see.
For Al-Hilal, a victory against Shabab Al-Ahli will be enough that it means they finish first or second and it is the same for Al-Ahli. If they beat Qatar’s Al-Duhail, they’ll be sure to finish above either Al-Nassr or Al-Sadd as one of the top three finalists. Saudi fans should buckle up.