Al-Hilal back in the AFC Champions League and their biggest obstacle is COVID-19

Al-Hilal are looking good for the AFC Champions League, with the coronavirus being their biggest hurdle to jump. (File/AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Al-Hilal back in the AFC Champions League and their biggest obstacle is COVID-19

  • The Jeddah club face back-to-back games against bottom club Al-Shorta of Iraq and have a chance to take control of the group
  • With tournament rules limiting each team to four foreign players, Al-Hilal will also be without Syrian striker Omar Kharbin

LONDON: After a gap of seven months, Al-Hilal resume their defence of the AFC Champions League on Monday looking good for a place in the knockout stage with coronavirus possibly the biggest obstacle to the title-holders’ chances of getting out of the group.

The champions take on Uzbekistan giants Pakhtakor in the West Asian hub of Qatar, knowing that victory will almost certainly seal a place in the last 16 though it won’t be easy with six players set to be absent due to an outbreak of the virus that in February caused the tournament to be postponed after just two games of the group stage.

The Riyadh giants have won both games in Group B so far against Al-Ahli of United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Shahr Khodro and after clinching the Saudi Pro League title in August are full of confidence if short on players.

On Saturday, the club announced that Salman Al-Faraj, Muhammad Al-Breik, Mohammad Al-Waked, Saleh Al-Shehri and Hamad Al-Abdan would be required to self-isolate with playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed added to the list on Sunday.

The news comes as a blow to head coach Razvan Lucescu who is aiming to become the first manager in history to win back-to-back Asian Champions League titles.

“We are happy to return to this tournament, one that we won last season,”  Lucescu said in Doha. “Of course, we face a difficult challenge but Al-Hilal are a team that are always ready to compete no matter what the circumstances are. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

The Romanian boss is under no illusions as to the size of the task with a number of stars not available but Al-Hilal have never lost in six previous meetings with Pakhtakor.

“We do have players absent but we should not focus on this too much. Of course, the matter must be dealt with wisely and calmly but these absences will not change our plans as we still have a wonderful group of players that can be relied upon. We will trust in our ability in the match and trust in each other.”

Lucescu is not going to use the outbreak as an excuse.

 "We have come to Doha in order to defend our Asian title and we are a club that always wants to win.”

With tournament rules limiting each team to four foreign players, Al-Hilal will also be without Syrian striker Omar Kharbin and Peruvian midfielder Andre Carillo.

Coronavirus has already had an impact on other Saudi Arabian teams. An outbreak in the United Arab Emirates meant that Al-Wahda have not travelled to Qatar and will not play any further part in the competition. Rules state that the Abu Dhabi team will forfeit their matches in Group A meaning that Al-Ahli, are now clear at the top

The Jeddah club face back-to-back games against bottom club Al-Shorta of Iraq and have a chance to take control of the group.

After Al-Hilal, Al-Nasr look to be Saudi Arabia’s best bet for the continental title. The 2019 domestic champions finished this season in second and are looking to Abderrazak Hamdallah to replicate his domestic goalscoring prowess in Asia.

The Moroccan marksman scored 29 goals at home and has already netted twice in Asia this season. He is ready to continue that form against Iranian team Sepahan.

“We know that playing in Asia is tough but we are now fully focused on doing as much as we can,” Hamdellah said. “We have a good team and there is no reason why we can’t keep progressing in the tournament.”

Al-Nasr are in second in Group D, level on four points with Al Sadd of Qatar. Victory over Sepahan will put the Riyadh team four points clear of third place with three games to go.

The team’s chances have been boosted by the $18 million signing of 2018 South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez. The Argentine star, signed from MLS team Atlanta United, arrived in Qatar on a private plane and is set to make his debut on Tuesday.

Al-Taawoun are in only their second Champions League campaign but are looking very good indeed with two wins out of two so far. Should the team take six points from Persepolis of Iran in their back-to-back meetings this week then they will progress to the last 16 with two games of the group stage remaining.

There is a good chance for all four Saudi teams to do the same but at the moment, the biggest threat to their chances is the coronavirus.


Liverpool’s Mane sinks 10-man Chelsea, Son hits four in Spurs rout

Updated 32 min 58 sec ago

Liverpool’s Mane sinks 10-man Chelsea, Son hits four in Spurs rout

  • Sadio Mane scored twice as Liverpool exploited Chelsea’s frailties to win 2-0
  • Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen was sent off at the end of the first half for hauling down Mane

LONDON: Sadio Mane tormented Chelsea as the Liverpool forward struck twice after sparking Andreas Christensen’s dismissal in the champions’ 2-0 win, while Son Heung-min scored four as Tottenham crushed Southampton 5-2 on Sunday.
Mane was involved in the turning point at Stamford Bridge as the first clash between Premier League title contenders this season swung Liverpool’s way.
In first half stoppage-time, Jordan Henderson picked out Mane’s run behind Christensen and the Denmark defender responded by rugby-tackling the Senegal star to the ground.
Referee Paul Tierney initially booked Christensen, but VAR told him to consult the pitchside monitor and he changed his decision to a red card.
Mane grabbed his first goal of the season in the 50th minute as he met Roberto Firmino’s cross with a thumping header after eluding Reece James’ slack marking.
Mane was gifted his second goal as Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga made a hash of trying to play out from the back, allowing the Liverpool forward to intercept and slot into the empty net.
It was the latest costly blunder from Kepa, who was dropped twice by Chelsea manager Frank Lampard last season despite his status as the world’s most expensive keeper.
Lampard will be relieved that Chelsea are reportedly close to signing Rennes’ Senegal international Edouard Mendy as he looks to replace Kepa.
“It was a clear mistake and Kepa accepted that,” Lampard said.
Thiago Alcantara made his Liverpool debut at half-time after his move from Bayern Munich, but the Spain midfielder conceded a 74th minute penalty with a foul on Timo Werner.
Alisson Becker came to Thiago’s rescue as he saved Jorginho’s spot-kick.
After their chaotic 4-3 win over Leeds on the opening weekend, this was a return to the kind of dominant display Liverpool produced so often en route to their first English title for 30 years last season.
“Chelsea were the dominant side without goals but then a massive game-changer which was good for us,” Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp said.
“After the red card, the second half is a different game. We kept the ball rolling, let them run, scored the goals. Everybody had a hand in the result.”
While Chelsea have spent £200 million ($258 million) on new signings in a bid to close the gap on the champions, Liverpool remain streets ahead of the Blues at present.
“The red card changes the face of the game. I think it could be given or not,” Lampard said.
At St. Mary’s, Jose Mourinho hailed Son and Harry Kane after the pair destroyed Southampton.
Just 24 hours after Tottenham signed Gareth Bale, Son delivered a virtuoso display that showed Mourinho’s side already have plenty of firepower.
Bale has returned to Tottenham on a season-long loan from Real Madrid seven years after he left the north London club.
Danny Ings put Southampton ahead in the first half, but Son equalized before the break and scored three more in the second half, with each of his goals coming from Kane assists.
Kane, who hit the back of the net twice in the first half only to have them ruled out for offside, capped a swaggering display with his second goal of the season.
“Son was on fire and for me Harry Kane was the man of the match, what he did for the team,” said Mourinho, whose side had lost their league opener against Everton.
“With him dropping back and connecting the game between the lines for Sonny to attack, the space they created was a problem they couldn’t resolve.”
Neal Maupay’s quick-fire double inspired Brighton’s 3-0 win against Newcastle as the Seagulls claimed their first Premier League victory of the season.
Graham Potter’s side raced into a two-goal lead after just seven minutes at St. James’ Park thanks to the brace from French striker Maupay.
Aaron Connolly grabbed the third for Brighton, who had Yves Bissouma sent off after his raised boot caught Jamal Lewis in the face.