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.