Xavi, Hulk, Pato, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal: Five talking points from the Asian Champions League

Al-Ahli celebrate their 2-1 win over Al-Jazira. (AFP)
Updated 21 February 2018

Xavi, Hulk, Pato, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal: Five talking points from the Asian Champions League

LONDON: The second round of matches took place this week as the race to emulate Urawa Red Diamonds starts to hot up. We look at the intriguing story lines to emerge from Matchday 2.

The Australian making a difference for Al-Ahli

Mark Milligan arrived in Saudi Arabia only last month but his experience (he has 67 caps for the Socceroos) and ability to read the game have contributed to Al-Ahli picking up six points from a possible six. He has been sitting in front of the back four, sniffing out danger, closing down the space and providing an air of clam. Milligan gives the team confidence to sit back and look to hit on the counter, as it did in the opening game win at Tractor Sazi, or to get forward and take the game to the opposition as happened in the 2-1 victory over Al-Jazira on Monday. His loss has been keenly felt at Melbourne Victory who have conceded seven goals in their opening two group games. Melbourne’s loss is very much Al-Ahli’s gain.

Injuries hurting Al-Hilal

Free-scoring Al-Hilal found the net 27 times in their run to last year’s final, but they have drawn a blank in the first two of this year’s edition and find themselves bottom of the group. Injuries are crippling them. Omar Khribin scored 10 times last season but the current AFC Player of the Year is sidelined with a hamstring injury. Star attacker Carlos Eduardo is still out with the serious knee injury he picked up in the first leg of the final with Urawa Red Diamonds. The importance of the Brazilian is shown by the fact he is still his club’s top scorer in the Saudi Pro League despite being out of action since November. Nawaf Al-Abed looked a readymade replacement for Eduardo but then he needed groin surgery. Without them, Al-Hilal have looked toothless at continental level and they need new boys Achraf Bencharki and Ezequiel Cerutti to step up against Al-Rayyan if they are to stand any chance of getting out of the group.

More can be less for UAE

There were three teams from the UAE in the competition last year and two of them — Al-Ahli and Al-Ain — topped their groups. Al-Jazira failed to win a single game but then gave Real Madrid a real fright in the semifinal of the FIFA Club World Cup. This year the UAE are four-strong, but Al-Jazira is the only team to record a victory in eight games played so far. It is a poor return. Al-Wasl and Al-Wahda were never going to end up lifting the trophy, but they have their work cut out to even reach the next phase after the opening two rounds. Much depends on Al-Ain. The 2016 finalists have drawn both games so far, though the 1-1 draw with Al-Rayyan should have ended in victory given all the possession and chances. The next game, against group leaders Esteghlal, is a big one.

Xavi leads Qatar resurgence

After two games, three of Qatar’s four representatives are in the top two spots and performances so far have been impressive. Their teams have lost only one game. Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail have looked especially impressive with the maximum two wins each. Both look capable of going far. Al-Duhail (a result of a merger between El-Jaish and local powerhouse Lekhwiya) have come from behind in both their games to take three points, with Karim Boudiaf shining in midfield. Al-Sadd, the only team from West Asia to lift the trophy since 2005, have Spanish maestro Xavi in midfield and they deservedly defeated a strong Persepolis team in the second game. Xavi gets most of the attention, but it is one of their own, Akram Afif, who is catching the eye. He recently returned from a spell in Europe and set Al-Sadd on their way with an assist for the first goal on Tuesday.

Brazilians star in the east, North Africans in the west

Brazilians have long been in demand for clubs competing in the Champions League and the likes of Hulk, Oscar and Alexandre Pato shone on Tuesday for big-spending Chinese teams. Hulk and Oscar were on target in Shanghai SIPG’s 4-1 win over Melbourne while Pato got an 88th-minute equalizer for Tianjin Quanjian against Kashiwa Reysol. The less-heralded Adrian, meanwhile, scored a hat-trick for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. In the west, it is players from Morocco and Algeria who are making their mark. The top scorer at the moment is Baghdad Bounedjah, with the Algerian scoring four goals in Al-Sadd’s opening two games. Morocco’s Abderrazak Hamdallah has scored for Al-Rayyan in both games so far. Now Al-Hilal just need Morocco’s Bencharki to start doing the business for them.

‘Captain fantastic’ Harry Kane to the rescue as England beat Tunisia at the death

Updated 19 June 2018

‘Captain fantastic’ Harry Kane to the rescue as England beat Tunisia at the death

  • Harry Kane came to the rescue with two goals, the second a dramatic injury-time winner
  • England had started brightly in a blur of passing and movement and could have been two goals up inside the first four minutes

VOLGOGRAD, Russia: Captain Harry Kane came to the rescue with two goals, the second a dramatic injury-time winner, as England began their World Cup Group G campaign with a stuttering 2-1 win over Tunisia on Monday.
Gareth Southgate’s men almost paid a heavy price for missing a slew of first-half chances when Tunisia’s Ferjani Sassi slotted home a softly-awarded penalty 20 minutes before half-time.
And the north Africans were still level as the game went past the 90-minute mark.
But Harry Maguire won a header from a corner and Kane was on hand at the far post to nod in the winner before being mobbed by his ecstatic teammates.
“I’m so proud of the lads,” Kane said. “They kept going, kept going to the last second.
“I am absolutely buzzing, everyone on the staff is. It shows good character to get the job done.”
England had started brightly in a blur of passing and movement and could have been two goals up inside the first four minutes.
First Jordan Henderson’s lofted first-time pass released Dele Alli and when the ball eventually broke to Jesse Lingard he saw his shot from six yards saved by the outstretched left boot of Mouez Hassen in the Tunisia goal.
Kane had been kept quiet in the opening salvos but he exploded into action in the 11th minute when he cut inside from the left and saw his shot from the edge of the box deflected wide for a corner.
Ashley Young delivered the set piece for John Stones to rise highest and meet with a powerful header. Hassen saved acrobatically but Kane was on hand to tap home the rebound with his right foot and open his World Cup account.
Hassen, who had injured his left shoulder making an earlier save, could not continue and left the field in tears as he was replaced in goal by Farouk Ben Mustapha.
England continued to press and were made to pay for not converting a succession of chances when they conceded a soft penalty.
Kyle Walker swung a lazy arm across Fakhreddine Ben Youssef who fell as if poleaxed and Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot, with his decision being upheld by the VAR.
Ferjani Sassi took one step and fired home confidently past the hitherto unemployed Jordan Pickford and Tunisia who had been outplayed for the first half-hour were somehow level 10 minutes before half-time.
Still there was time for Lingard to come close again twice, first from a goalbound shot and then a dink over the keeper which agonizingly struck the post.
Alli too hit the woodwork with a header and England went into half-time wondering how they had not sealed victory already.
England still enjoyed the lion’s share of possession but could not find the same zip and penetration they had enjoyed at the start of the first half.
The ineffective Sterling gave way to Marcus Rashford with just over 20 minutes to go and the Manchester United man almost fashioned a chance straight away with a jinking run into the box.