LONDON: The AFC Champions League group stage is therefore over and, as expected, there is a lot to be said. Two of the Saudi teams qualified for the second round which will take place in September, one did not.
Thursday night in Riyadh, Al-Nassr had to defeat Al-Sadd to progress and did so, winning 2-1 at the top of Group D.
On Friday it was Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli’s turn. Al-Hilal lost 2-0 to Shabab Al-Ahli to finish second in Group A, but placed in the bottom 16 as the third best runner-up.
Al-Ahli came out after a 1-1 draw with Al-Duhail, finishing third in Group C with nine points.
1. Al-Nassr damages Xavi’s reputation
Al-Sadd’s failure in the AFC Champions League doesn’t mean that Xavi Hernandez won’t get that Barcelona job at some point, as expected, but it does mean that the Spanish is not as virgin as it used to be. Last month, the 2010 World Cup winner led the team to the Qatar Stars League title without losing a single game.
The team were one of the favorites for the continental title, especially with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla and a number of Qatar national team players to call on. Still, Al-Sadd disappointed, with Xavi struggling to get the most out of his players. In matches with Al-Nassr, Mano Menezes has taught the Barca legend a lesson on how to organize a squad and introduce substitutions at the right time.
2. Work done for Al-Hilal, but only
Al-Hilal barely made it through the group stage of the competition, but the margins couldn’t have been tighter. With the three best-placed finalists for the round of 16, Al-Hilal was the third team, ahead of Al-Sadd only in scoring more goals.
Losing 4-1 to Tajikistan’s Istiklol could be written off as one of those things, especially as the Riyadh giants held 73% possession, but the latest 2-0 loss to Shabab Al-Ahli was disappointing. Once again there were missed opportunities and a questionable refereeing decision but there was a lack of focus throughout the squad against the club Dubai who had already been knocked out. All of this will be forgotten as Al-Hilal progresses, but there can be no more slippage when they face Iranian giant Esteghlal in September’s round of 16 game.
3. Al-Ahli can be disappointed but encouraged
Arriving in Asia after six straight league defeats, Al-Ahli supporters feared the worst as the opener ended in a 5-2 loss to Esteghlal. Yet despite a possible elimination, there were no more defeats in the next five games and Al-Ahli was still alive in the tournament before the dying minutes of the last group game. Against Qatar’s Al-Duhail, both teams knew only a win would get them through and it was an entertaining clash either one or the other could have won.
Al-Hilal will be happy it ended 1-1 as that is the only result that sent them. In a tough group, Al-Ahli was competitive – it usually wouldn’t have been enough, but given their form beforehand, it will do the trick for now.
4. Al-Nassr’s victory came at a price
It was an impressive victory for Al-Nassr as they reached the knockout stage for the third year in a row. But three of the team’s star players have picked up yellow cards that will rule them out of the second round match against Tractor of Iran in September. Star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah has scored four goals in the group stage but a 95th-minute reservation, almost the last act of the game, rules him out. Abdullah Madu and Ali Lajami will also be on the sidelines.
Otherwise, it was a great performance from Al-Nassr. In a difficult group with a new coach at Mano Menezes, everything could have gone wrong but, despite some slippage, they came under pressure and took first place. While the players might miss out next time around, if they can show the same kind of wit, there’s a good chance for a place in the bottom eight.
5. Asia is over for now, but the action continues
It has been a hectic two-week period in Asia, but there is little time to rest, especially for Al-Hilal. Next Friday, the league leaders will meet second-placed Al-Shabab. The two teams are tied on points with five games to go. A victory for either team is a major step towards the title. It remains to be seen whether the six games in 15 days will mean Al-Hilal will be exhausted or whether they will be energized by sneaking around.
Al-Nassr can focus on finishing as high as possible in the league – a top four is possible – after a disappointing home campaign, but there is more at stake for Al-Ahli. Before the Champions League, the Jeddah club had lost their last six matches. This is unacceptable to a Saudi football giant and the results in Asia should at least give them confidence again.
Al-Nassr beat Al-Sadd to reach the knockout stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League