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.


Mohammad Shahzad century helps Afghanistan to dramatic tie against India in Dubai

Updated 54 min 20 sec ago
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Mohammad Shahzad century helps Afghanistan to dramatic tie against India in Dubai

  • Shahzad’s 124 laid the foundation of Afghanistan’s fighting total of 252-8
  • The winner of Wednesday’s match between Pakistan and Bangladesh will meet India in the final in Dubai

DUBAI: Stockily built Mohammad Shahzad knocked a brilliant hundred as spirited Afghanistan pulled off a last over tie against India in the Super Four match in Dubai on Tuesday.
Shahzad’s 124 laid the foundation of Afghanistan’s fighting total of 252-8 in 50 overs before bowling out India in 49.5 overs for the same total at Dubai stadium.
Needing seven to win off the final Rashid Khan over, Ravindra Jadeja hit a boundary off the second ball before taking a single off the next. Last man Khaleel Ahmed then took a single but Jadeja holed out off the fifth to give Afghanistan a morale-boosting tie with the defending champions.
India rested five top players — skipper Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar — as they had already qualified for Friday’s final.
The winner of Wednesday’s match between Pakistan and Bangladesh will meet India in the final in Dubai.
India were helped to 110 by openers Lokendra Rahul (60) and Ambati Rayudu (57) and at 166-3 they looked on course for an easy win but Afghanistan pulled back through key wickets.
Rahul hit five boundaries and a six in his 66-ball knock while Rayudu’s 49-ball innings had four sixes and as many boundaries.
Dinesh Karthik made 44 and Jadeja scored 25 to bring India closer but India could not cross the finish line.
Spinners Rashid and Mohammad Nabi, and paceman Aftab Alam finished with two wickets apiece.
Despite crashing out with two defeats Afghanistan can hold their heads high as they beat Sri Lanka and Bangldesh in the first round and only lost to Pakistan in the final over.
Earlier, Shahzad knocked a fighting hundred and Mohammad Nabi scored 56-ball 64 to lift Afghanistan after they won the toss.
The 31-year-old Shazad smashed seven sixes and 11 fours in his 116-ball 124 — his fifth one-day century but first against a top nation.
So dominant was Shahzad that fellow opener Javed Ahmadi was only five in a stand of 65, before India struck four times within the space of 17 runs.
Left-arm spinners Jadeja (3-46) and Kuldeep Yadav (2-38) derailed the innings but Shahzad held one end, adding 50 for the fifth wicket with Gulbadin Naib who made 15 and another 48 for the sixth with Mohammad Nabi.
Shahzad was finally out in the 38th over but by then had given a good platform to his team.