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.


Racing in the streets: Jeddah to host first Saudi F1 Grand Prix

Updated 29 October 2020

Racing in the streets: Jeddah to host first Saudi F1 Grand Prix

  • Kingdom’s inaugural race to take place in city while purpose-built track at Qiddiyah is being completed

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix next year will take place on the city streets of Jeddah.
The Saudi Grand Prix appears on the provisional F1 calendar for 2021 that has been distributed to race teams. It is expected to be the penultimate race of the 2021 season, which will conclude
with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit.
Jeddah will host the Saudi race while a new purpose-built track at Qiddiyah is completed, which is expected to be in 2023.
It is one of 22 races on a provisional 2021 schedule as F1 plans to return to a calendar as close to normal as possible after this year’s disruption. The first 10 races of the 2020 season were either postponed or cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

HIGHLIGHT

The Saudi Grand Prix is one of 22 races on a provisional 2021 schedule as F1 plans to return to a calendar as close to normal as possible after this year’s

The 2021 season will begin in Melbourne, Australia in mid-March and then goes on to Bahrain. It includes nearly all the races that had been due to be held this year.
That means a return for grands prix in China, Japan and Canada, which had to be cancelled because of the disruptions to international travel caused by COVID-19, as well as the debut of the Vietnamese Grand Prix.
F1 has been in conversations with the relevant national governments and all are said to be in agreement the races can take place, unless the pandemic worsens.
In 2018, Riyadh hosted the first Formula E championship in the Middle East in Diriyah with 23,000 in attendance. The second Formula E championship was held in late 2019.
This year, Saudi Arabia held its first Dakar Rally, a 7,800km race that began in Jeddah and finished in Qiddiyah.