Five talking points from the latest round of the AFC Champions League

Al-Hilal's players celebrate their equalizer against Al-Rayyan at the King Saudi University stadium in Riyadh on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 07 March 2018
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Five talking points from the latest round of the AFC Champions League

Arab News picks the bones out of the best of the action from Matchday 3 of the region’s top continental club tournament.

SNEIJDER PUNISHES AL-AHLI, BUT SAUDIS STILL SITTING PRETTY

The Saudi Arabians arrived in Qatar to take on Al Gharafa with a maximum of six points from the opening two game and the confidence was there for all to see.
Al-Ahli were aggressive from the beginning. Their movement with the ball will have pleased coach Sergei Rebrov, but the Ukrainian legend will have been even happier with the work-rate of the men in green without the ball. There were everywhere, closing Al-Gharafa down and denying them space.
A well-worked goal on the hour from Aqeel Al-Sahbi was well-deserved and it could have been more had Qasem Burham not been in fine form for Al-Gharafa between the sticks. Still, a third win was within sight when Al-Ahli’s concentration dropped for the only time of the evening. In injury time, Wesley Sneijder was, for once, given too much space just outside the area and the Dutch master created the equalizer for Rubert Quijada. The point was still a good one for the Saudis, though, and they remain top of Group A.

AL-HILAL LACK CUTTING EDGE

There have been complaints about the parking situation at the Al-Hilal’s new King Saud University Stadium and getting through crowded areas proved a problem for the players on Tuesday.
Some of the fans would have not have taken their seats when Al-Rayyan took the lead with a thunderbolt from Mouhssine Moutouali after just three minutes. A second almost followed soon after. Al-Hilal had failed to muster a goal in their previous two Group D games, so there was much relief when Abdullah Al-Zori scored just before the hour mark. Al-Rayyan were thereafter content to sit back and allow Al-Hilal to have the ball in front of them and it was a tactic that worked. The men from Riyadh enjoyed more than three quarters of the possession, but did not create any more clear chances than the visitors and a draw was another disappointing result. The one positive for Al-Hilal, who are still without a permanent coach, is that they may only have two points from the first three games, but are just a point off second. They still might get out of the group despite not having a win at the halfway stage.

EAST ASIAN TEAMS ARE THE ONES TO BEAT

Whichever team from West Asia makes it to the final, you already feel they are going to have their work cut out to record only a second win over eastern opposition since 2005. Jeonbuk Motors and Guangzhou Evergrande are the two powerhouses from the other side of the draw and they look in ominous form. The South Koreans and the Chinese have some serious firepower and Jeonbuk have already scored 15 goals in the group stage, including six against Tianjin Quanjian on Tuesday. Guangzhou helped themselves to five against Jeju United this week, sensationally recovering from two goals down to win 5-3. Evergrande have declared they want to field an all-Chinese side by 2020, but it was their Brazilians who inspired the turnaround, with Ricardo Goulart scoring four second-half goals and Alan Carvalho getting the other. It was Fabio Cannavaro’s first Champions League win as coach of Evergrande and you suspect it won’t be the last.

REFEREEING STANDARDS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT AS AL-AIN GET HELPING HAND

The UAE giants hit Esteghlal for six in 2017, but this is a different version of the Tehran titans who defeated Al-Hilal in the previous round and they should have done the same with Al-Ain on Tuesday.
With the score at 1-1, Al-Ain were handed a soft penalty with 16 minutes remaining, but Marcus Berg’s effort was saved excellently by Seyed Hossein Hosseini in the Esteghlal goal.
Soon after, the Iranians retook the lead but were denied all three points by another dubious spot-kick decision. With just four minutes remaining, the Malaysian referee awarded another mystifying penalty and this time it was converted by Ahmed Khalil to give Al Ain a 2-2 draw that was scarcely deserved.
Iranian fans are up in arms — and the anger is understandable when decisions are that bad. Asia’s flagship competition deserves better.

THE CENTRAL ASIAN CHALLENGE SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED

Sandwiched between east and west, Central Asia tends to get overlooked. This is especially understandable at club level as a semifinal place is the best ever Central Asian effort.
Uzbekistan’s two teams this year are both in with a chance of progressing. Nasaf Qarshi have six points and picked up an impressive win over Al-Sadd this week. The other Uzbek representative, Lokomotiv Tashkent, may have lost two out of three, but those have been successive and very tricky away fixtures at Zob Ahan and leaders Al-Duhail. At home, the fabulously-named Lokomotiv have the chance of getting the points.
It is unlikely that the region will welcome a champion for the first time in the Champions League, but both Uzbekistan teams will be pushing for the second round.


‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

Updated 20 June 2018
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‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

  • A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half gave Uruguay a 1-0 win
  • Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance

ROSTOV-ON-DON: Good, but not good enough.
That was what Juan Antonio Pizzi stated as he declared himself pleased with his team’s performance in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay on Wednesday night.
But he lamented his side’s lack of firepower as they exited the World Cup after just two matches.
Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance in Rostov-on-Don after losing their opening game 5-0 to hosts Russia in Moscow last week.
The Argentine got his wish with a display that saw the Green Falcons fight throughout and edge possession against a Uruguay side ranked 14th in the world.
A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half after poor goalkeeping from Mohammed Al-Owais, however, was enough to hand the Green Falcons a 12th successive World Cup defeat.
The result means that even with a win against Egypt on Monday, the Green Falcons are no longer capable of progressing to the knock-out stages from Group A.
“We had a lot of ball possession and were able to impose our style of play and distribution,” said Pizzi. “We conceded a goal from a random play and didn’t have the weapons or tools to try to equalize. We kept the ball well and weren’t really troubled defensively, but lacked that ability to score.”
Indeed, for all their possession, Saudi Arabia have managed just three shots on target in 180 minutes of football. Against Russia, they failed to muster a single effort on target and the managed just three against Uruguay, two of which came in the final minutes when they knew they had to score or face elimination. None of the three shots came from a striker.
“This is our weakness. We have good ball possession, but no effectiveness. We lack the depth and skill required to win these games,” Pizzi added. “We have that deficiency and have looked for solutions, but we haven’t quite come up with one yet. But that is one of the reasons great forward are in high demand and are the elite players in world football.”
Pizzi had made four changes ahead of the match, dropping goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf in favor of Al-Owais and introducing Ali Al-Bulayhi at the heart of the defense alongside Osama Hawsawi. Further upfield, Hattan Bahberi came in for Yahya Al-Shehri and Fahad Al-Muwallad replaced Mohammed Al-Sahlawi. The changes, particularly the inclusion of Bahberi, seemed to give the side more impetus in midfield.
“The difference between the performance in the first game and this game is enormous,” Pizzi said. “The only way to compete at this level is to play at the level we did here. And even then it was not enough even to get a draw. Undoubtedly there were other factors aside from the pressure of playing in the opening game that made a difference, but it’s true that the difference was enormous.”
Many critics had predicted a deluge of goals from the likes of Suarez and Cavani, yet both were kept at bay. Save for a couple of half-chances early on, neither came close to scoring until the 23rd minute.
A corner from Carlos Sanchez sailed into the area and when Al-Owais came for it but failed to connect with his punch, Barcelona forward Suaréz was left with the simplest of tap-ins. He was so caught off-guard, he actually looked surprised as he reeled away in celebration.
“I believe you cannot be relaxed in any match,” Suarez said when asked by a Uruguayan journalist whether he had taken it easy against the Saudis.
“We wanted to win and to progress to the knock-out stage and this game simply showed how difficult it is. That’s the World Cup for you though and we are obviously delighted with how we have performed so far to progress.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez did not share his striker’s sentiments.
“Saudi Arabia wanted to excel and give a better account of themselves after losing to Russia,” he said.
“They did that very well and we have to respect them. But what surprised me the most is how we played. We underperformed.”