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.