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.