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.


Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez taking Saudi Arabia challenge seriously

Updated 26 min 36 sec ago
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Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez taking Saudi Arabia challenge seriously

ROSTOV: Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez has insisted his side will not get complacent today when they face a Saudi Arabia team that he expects will do everything they possibly can to turn their failing World Cup campaign around. 
Tabarez, 71, knows that while his South American side may have labored to a 1-0 win over Egypt in their first game, they can secure safe passage through Group A with a victory against Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Green Falcons at the Rostov Arena this afternoon. Their opponents, humiliated 5-0 by hosts Russia on the opening night, will be determined however to avoid another embarrassing afternoon under the spotlight.
“We are not here to play games like they are friendlies,” said Tabarez, who has been in charge of Uruguay for 12 years and led them to the World Cup semi-finals in 2010. 
“We prepare for every match thoroughly regardless of the opponent. When you lose by such a large goal margin you feel hurt and angry, but all you can do is try to change it into a positive. Often you learn more from a defeat than you do from a win. I think Saudi Arabia will be determined to turn their World Cup campaign around and we must be ready for that.”
It will be the first time the two sides have met at a World Cup, but the Uruguay technical staff have done their homework, with Tabarez highlighting the Gulf side’s pace in attack and ability to dominate possession. Saudi Arabia enjoyed 63 percent of the ball against Russia, but failed to manage a single shot on target. 
“They almost drew against Germany and have very fast and skilful players,” Tabarez added. “They have strengths and they have weaknesses, same as any other side. We expect a tough match, much like the other games we have seen so far at this World Cup. The result though will depend on us and how we can curb their strengths. We must be prepared for anything because you never know what might happen. Every team here has something to prove.”
With Edinson Cavani and Luis 
Suarez expected to lead the line against a Saudi Arabia defence that looked dangerously indecisive against Russia, some pundits are suggesting the Green Falcons are at risk of suffering a defeat larger than the 8-0 drubbing dealt to them by Germany at the 2002 World Cup. Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, however, insists he and his teammates must not be complacent.
“A lot has been said by the press and reporters who do not know what it is like to be immersed in football,” he said. “Saudi Arabia will want to play well, work hard and will give everything they have. They are a great team. When you look at the first match statistics, they appear better (than the result suggests). They will come at us, but we know we need to win because it means we qualify for the next round.”
Suarez had been tipped to challenge for the Golden Boot this summer, but endured a difficult opening game against Egypt that prompted his coach to defend the 31-year-old’s performance post-match. Today will mark the forward’s 100th appearance for his country.
“Time flies,” said Tabarez, who handed Suarez his debut in 2007. “He has played a pivotal role. He perhaps did not have the best performance against Egypt, but the player is the first person to be unhappy. We advise him only to be serene, cool and calm.”