LONDON: So the group stage of the AFC Champions League is over and, as expected, there is plenty to talk about. Two of the Saudi teams made it through to the second round that will be held in September, one did not.
On Thursday evening in Riyadh, Al-Nassr had to defeat Al-Sadd to progress and did so, winning 2-1 to top Group D.
On Friday, it was the turn of Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. Al-Hilal lost 2-0 to Shabab Al-Ahli to finish second in Group A but squeezed through to the last 16 as the third best runners-up.
Al-Ahli are out after drawing 1-1 with Al-Duhail, finishing in third place in Group C with nine points.
1. Al-Nassr give Xavi’s reputation a hit
Al-Sadd’s failure in the AFC Champions League does not mean that Xavi Hernandez will not get that Barcelona job at some point, as widely expected, but it does mean that the Spaniard's coaching reputation is not as pristine as it was. Just last month, the 2010 World Cup winner led the team to the Qatar Stars League title without losing a single game.
The team were one of the favourites for the continental title, especially with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla and a number of Qatar national team players to call upon. Yet Al-Sadd disappointed, with Xavi struggling to get the best out of his players. In the games with Al-Nassr, Mano Menezes gave the Barca legend a bit of a lesson on how to organise a team and introduce substitutions at the right time.
2. Job done for Al-Hilal but only just
Al-Hilal only just managed to get through the group stage of the competition but the margins could not have been tighter. With the three best placed runners-up going to the knockout stages, Al-Hilal were the third team, ahead of Al-Sadd only by scoring more goals.
Losing 4-1 to Istiklol of Tajikistan could be written off as one of those things, especially given the fact that the Riyadh giants had 73 percent possession, but the final 2-0 loss against Shabab Al-Ahli was disappointing. Again, there were missed chances and a dubious refereeing decision but there was a lack of focus throughout the team against the Dubai club that was already eliminated. This will all be forgotten the further Al-Hilal progress but there can be no more slip-ups when they take on Iranian giants Esteghlal in September’s Round of 16 game.
3. Al-Ahli can be disappointed but encouraged
Coming into Asia after six straight defeats in the league, Al-Ahli fans feared the worst as the first game ended with a 5-2 loss against Esteghlal. Yet despite eventual elimination, there were no more defeats in the following five games and Al-Ahli were still alive in the tournament going into the final minutes of the final group game. Against Al-Duhail of Qatar, both teams knew that only a win would send them through and it was an entertaining clash that either could have won.
Al-Hilal will be glad that it ended 1-1 as that was the only result that sent them through. In a tough group, Al-Ahli were competitive — that would not usually have been enough but given their form beforehand, it will do for now.
4. Al-Nassr’s win came at a price
It was an impressive victory for Al-Nassr as they reached the knockout stage for the third year in a row. But three of the team’s star players picked up yellow cards that will rule them out of the second-round game against Tractor of Iran in September. Star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah scored four goals in the group stage, yet a 95th minute booking, almost the last act of the match, rules him out. Abdullah Madu and Ali Lajami will also be on the sidelines.
Otherwise, this was a fine performance from Al-Nassr. In a tough group with a new coach in Mano Menezes, it could have all gone wrong but, despite a couple of slip-ups, they came through when the pressure was on and took first place. While players may be missing next time, if they can show the same kind of spirit there is a good chance of a place in the last eight.
5. Asia’s over for now, but the action continues
It has been a hectic two weeks in Asia but there is little time to rest, especially for Al-Hilal. Next Friday the league leaders meet second-placed Al-Shabab. The two teams are level on points with five games remaining. A win for either team is a major step towards the title. Whether the six games in 15 days will mean that Al-Hilal are exhausted or whether they will be energised by squeezing through remains to be seen.
Al-Nassr can focus on finishing as high as possible in the league — a top four finish is possible — after a disappointing campaign at home but there is more at stake for Al-Ahli. Before the Champions League, the Jeddah club had lost their last six games. That’s unacceptable for a giant of Saudi Arabian football and results in Asia should, at least, have given them back some self-belief.