RIYADH: The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia’s three teams.
Al-Nassr had the last 16 in sight but stumbled on Monday, losing 2-1 to Al-Wehdat of Jordan to slip down into second in Group D, a point behind leaders Al-Sadd.
On Tuesday, Al-Hilal bounced back from their 4-1 loss at the hands of Istiklol to ease past Uzbekistan’s AGMK 3-0 to stay in second in Group A, level on 11 points with their recent conquerors.
Al-Ahli stayed in the hunt in Group C after a battling 0-0 draw with Esteghlal of Iran to leave three teams on eight points.
Only the group winners are guaranteed progress to the second round, where they will be joined by three of the best five runners-up in the western zone. All three Saudi sides are in with a chance but all three could still miss out.
1. Al-Ahli’s best performance to date
The game with Esteghlal may have ended 0-0 but it was still a solid performance from Al-Ahli, the best of the five they have managed so far.
It was impressive firstly because the Jeddah giants lost 5-2 to the same Iranian opposition in the opening game. That result suggested that the six-game losing streak from the domestic league was going to continue in Asia.
Under new coach Laurentiu Reghecampf, however, Al-Ahli have turned things around in impressive style and whatever happens in the final game, the team will return to domestic duties in a different frame of mind, or they should. Had Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah, who has looked dangerous all tournament, been wearing his shooting boots then Al-Ahli would have won and gone top of the group.
Regardless of what happens against Al-Duhail in the final game, Tuesday showed that Al-Ahli are heading in the right direction.
2. Al-Nassr only have themselves to blame
Fans must be tearing their hair out over Al-Nassr who did the hard work to put themselves in sight of the second round only to slip up again, losing 2-1 to Al-Wehdat.
The Riyadh club has dropped five points against the bottom team of the group and if the Yellows fail to progress, this will be the reason why. Beating Al-Sadd and Foolad is all well and good but taking just one point from the Jordanians may turn out to be a crucial failure.
It would be easy to say that Al-Nassr underestimated their unfancied opponents but in truth, they were just second best almost from start to finish.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Al-Wehdat were already out of contention but that seemed to give the team some freedom and while the victory was unexpected, it was also deserved. The men from Amman were full of running and kept their shape in contrast to the tired-looking Al-Nassr whose attacks were plodding and lacking in penetration.
Coach Mano Menezes has shown that he can conjure victories against the stronger teams in the group and that is what he needs to do in the final fixture against Al-Sadd.
3. Al-Hilal do not look like champions ... yet
After losing 4-1 to Istiklol of Tajikistan three days earlier, another defeat to Central Asian opposition was unthinkable. It never looked like happening as the Saudi champions were just too powerful for AGMK of Uzbekistan and attacked with purpose from the get-go.
The headlines will go to Bafetimbi Gomis for his perfect header that put clear daylight between the two games and Luciano Vietto for his opener and perfect assist for the third. But Abdullah Otayf was also quietly effective in midfield and used the ball with intelligence and vision.
Al-Hilal have not yet found their groove in this tournament and do not carry the air of champions but they do look like a team heading into the knockout stage and that is enough for now.
4. Teams starting to look tired
It would be strange if there was not some major fatigue in all the teams given that they have played five games in less than two weeks.
What is a little surprising is that there has not been that much rotation coming from the coaches, and wholesale changes from game to game have not materialized as much as expected.
In the last 15 to 20 minutes against Esteghlal, Al-Ahli were dead on their feet. Al-Nassr, too, could not match Al-Wehdat for energy in their defeat and the physical condition of the players is sure to have a major impact in the final 90 minutes of the group stage.
5. The situation now is clear for all
If all three Saudi teams win, all three will go through.
Al-Nassr’s task is now clear. Only victory against Al-Sadd in the final game will guarantee a place in the last 16. It is not outside the realms of possibility, after all, the Riyadh giants beat the same opposition just days ago.
Al-Sadd, however, have improved since then and are looking more like the team that went through the Qatari season unbeaten. A draw may be enough for Al-Nassr, but they will have to wait and see.
For Al-Hilal, a win against Shabab Al-Ahli will be enough whether it means they finish first or second and that is the same for Al-Ahli. If they defeat Al-Duhail of Qatar, then they will be sure to finish above either Al-Nassr or Al-Sadd as one of the best three runners-up. Saudi Arabian fans should strap themselves in.