RIYADH: The first round of games in the AFC Champions League is over. Al-Nassr got the ball rolling for Saudi Arabian teams on Wednesday night with a disappointing 0-0 against a hard-working Al-Wehdat from Jordan.
The following evening, Al-Hilal drew 2-2 with AGMK of Uzbekistan while struggling Al-Ahli went down 5-2 to Iran’s Esteghlal.
There was plenty to talk about, but here are five things we learned.
1. Sloppy Al-Hilal need to get back to basics
It is often best not to read too much into opening games but playing the Uzbekistan debutants in the first match at home should have given Al-Hilal a winning start. The problem is that the three-time champions seemed to think that it would come easily.
AGMK may not be the strongest of teams in the tournament but there was no doubt that they were going to work hard, fight for every ball, and be well-organized. If Al-Hilal wanted three points they would have to fight for them.
Yet it was a lackluster performance from the Riyadh giants who were sloppy at the back, lacked concentration, and allowed the opposition to grow in confidence.
The jury is still out on new coach Rogerio Micale and while there remains a long way to go, Al-Hilal need to get the basics right.
The next game against Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on Sunday should be a different affair and may suit Al-Hilal more. Under Mahdi Ali, the visitors have plenty of options in attack and there should be more space and more opportunities to score but if the backline is not tightened up, the 2019 champions will not be going very far in 2021.
2. Stop Hamdallah and it is possible to stop Al-Nassr
Abderrazak Hamdallah was the tournament’s golden boot winner last year with seven goals that helped Al-Nassr reach the semi-finals, when only a penalty shootout loss to Persepolis prevented a place in the final. The Moroccan marksman was also the top scorer in the Saudi Pro League with a magnificent 29 goals.
This year has not been quite so prolific, though injuries have not helped. Yet Al-Wehdat worked hard and defended deep and in numbers to deny the 30-year-old time and space anywhere near their goal.
With Argentine playmaker Pity Martinez missing through injury, Hamdallah did not quite have the support he needed, and it was clear that if the north African can be prevented from scoring, then Al-Nassr can struggle to find a way through. Hamdallah barely had a sniff of goal, a weak second-half header apart, and without his cutting edge, the Saudis never really looked like scoring.
3. It already looks like damage limitation for Al-Ahli
After six straight defeats in the league, there was hope — rather than expectation — that Asia would offer a respite for last year’s quarterfinalists. It was not to be as they lost 5-2. Esteghlal of Iran were always going to present a tough challenge and so it proved to be.
Newly appointed coach Laurentiu Reghecampf was full of excuses after the dismal showing and talked about referees, Ramadan, injuries, and a lack of time with the squad. There is no doubt that there are issues with the team that will need time to sort but the basic problem was that Al-Ahli were second-best all over the pitch.
With only the group winner sure of a place in the next round, it is already looking tough for Al-Ahli. What they do not want to happen is for Asia to be a continuation of home form. It may not be about getting to the knockout stage but just stopping the rot.
There is another tough game on Sunday against Al-Duhail of Qatar and by whatever means necessary, the Jeddah giants have to avoid defeat.
4. Expansion already vindicated
This year, the tournament has expanded from 32 to 40 teams, opening it up to more countries. There was some dissent that widening the net would weaken the standard but that has not been the case.
Debutants FC Goa of India, AGMK, and Tajikistan’s Istiklol all pulled off good results against teams with much more history and pedigree in the competition. And then there was Al-Wehdat of Jordan keeping the talented Al-Nassr at bay.
Long may this continue as all of Asia benefits when standards rise and if one of the new boys can sneak into the last 16, that really would be an encouraging sign.
5. Xavi now stands in the way
While Al-Wehdat were making their first appearance in the competition and may prove to be a tough nut to crack, there was a sense that Al-Nassr carelessly dropped two points in the opening game with the next two opponents providing tougher tests.
The first is Al-Sadd. The dominant Qatari champions, who went through their domestic season undefeated under coach Xavi Hernandez, are tipped as one of the favorites for the trophy. Yet they were second best for much of their match against Foolad as they came back late to snatch a 1-1 draw.
New Al-Nassr boss Mano Menezes would have had mixed feelings watching the game. Al-Sadd did not look as impressive as many expected but Foolad would have deserved their win had they not let in an 89th-minute equalizer.
Xavi said: “I talked about how difficult this group was. This is the AFC Champions League, and we are playing against the best teams in Asia, this is the reality. We are going to improve, recover, and keep going.”
That is the worry. Foolad look good while Al-Sadd will surely improve. Al-Nassr need to up their game and quick.