The group stage of this year’s AFC Champions League finishes today after two months of great goals, shocks and sackings. Here are five things we have learned ahead of the knockout stage.
SHORT-CHANGED SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia are the most successful West Asian nation in terms of continental club championships won — only Japan and South Korea have bagged more. So it does not sit right that this continental powerhouse had only two teams in the group stage. Iran had four, the UAE had four and Qatar had four, so it seems strange that Saudi Arabia (provider of two teams in the past four finals) had just the two. If those other nations deserved to have a quartet in the group stage, then so did Saudi Arabia.
INJURIES HAMPER AL-HILAL
It was only last November when Al-Hilal were unlucky to lose the final of the AFC Champions League. The Riyadh giants should have won against Urawa Reds, but were hampered by the injury to star Brazilian attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo in the first leg. If he had stayed on the pitch, Al-Hilal might have won the title and also got out of their group. Add in the fact Omar Khribin played no part in this year’s group stages, also because of injury, and you can see why the Saudi powerhouses might be bemoaning their luck.
EAST ASIA HOLDS NO FEARS
There are two teams that look especially dangerous in the eastern side of the draw — Shanghai SIPG of China and South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. With Hulk and Oscar, the Chinese team have the firepower to trouble the best Asian defenses. Jeonbuk have strength in depth and an experience in the competition that is hard to match. Apart from that duo, though, there is little West Asian teams have to fear.
UAE HOPES REAT ON OMAR
Al-Ain may have been champions in 2003 and runners-up in 2016, but they struggled in the group stage with no wins in the first four games. Ultimately, it was left to Omar Abdulrahman to step forward in the final two games to inspire his team to two wins and second place in Group D. If Al-Ain are to repeat their earlier success than it all depends on their much-lauded playmaker. If he does not shine in Asia, neither do they.
UZBEKS DISAPPOINT AGAIN
There is real talent in the Central Asian nation, but for some reason their teams rarely make any impact. Whether at club or country level, Uzbekistan sides never quite deliver. The national team has been on the brink of World Cup qualification more than once, but when the big prize has been in sight, they have failed to step up. It is the same at club level where they rarely fulfil their potential.