RIYADH: When Al-Hilal lifted a record fourth Asian title in November to spark celebrations among millions of fans, there was one slight tinge of regret.
The Saudi Arabian giants lost 4-1 to tournament debutants Istiklol in the group stage and only made it to the last 16 by the narrowest of margins.
The draw for the 2022 AFC Champions League, made on Monday in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, has given the Saudi champions a chance for revenge against the Tajikistan powerhouse.
Al-Hilal, who defeated Pohang Steelers of South Korea in November’s final, have been placed in Group A of this year’s edition along with Istiklol as well as Al-Rayyan of Qatar. The lineup will be completed by the winner of the play-off between Sharjah of the UAE and Iraq’s Al-Zawraa. All six group games will take place between April 7 and 27 at a yet to be disclosed venue.
It is a draw that will likely be welcomed by coach Leonardo Jardim as continental powerhouses have been avoided – the recent expulsion of Iranian giants Persepolis and Esteghlal is a shame for the tournament but does make things easier for the others.
Istiklol will not be underestimated, however. They ended 2021 with another dominant win in the Tajikistan Higher League, finishing a full 13 points clear of their closest challenger. Al-Hilal fans will remember Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who scored twice in that 4-1 win and the veteran striker ended as top scorer once more in his home league with 18 goals.
The top two teams in Qatar, Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail, have been avoided with Al-Rayyan finishing 25 points behind the former and 12 behind the runners-up. In fact, Laurent Blanc’s men were closer to relegation than the title. Al-Hilal would have few fears of facing either of the play-off winners.
Al-Shabab return to Asia for the first time since 2015 and will also be in the hunt for top spot in Group B. Last season’s Saudi Pro League runners-up will be looking at Al-Jazira of the UAE as their main rivals. The Abu Dhabi club, fifth in the current league season, are UAE champions and have one of Asia’s most feared strikers in Ali Mabkhout, although Al-Shabab, currently in second in Saudi Arabia, have plenty of attacking talent of their own in Odion Ighalo and Ever Banega.
There will be an interesting clash with Mumbai City. The Indian debutants are part of the City Football Group, are coached by Englishman Des Buckingham, and are currently fourth in the Indian Super League. Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya complete a group that Al-Shabab will be looking to get out of.
Al-Faisaly may currently be preoccupied with a relegation battle at home but that may mean a first-ever Asian campaign will come as a welcome respite. A meeting with Qatari powerhouse Al-Sadd, who won their local league by 13 points last season (in a league that has just 22 games) will be tough but Al-Faisaly have shown in winning the King’s Cup that they are a match for any team on their day.
They will be joined by Jordanian giants Al-Wehdat and the winner of the play-off between UAE team Baniyas and Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. It should be an interesting challenge for Daniel Ramos’ men especially if they can pull away from the drop zone at home before the continental tournament starts.
Al-Taawoun are also fighting against the drop but will move into the group stage if they win a play-off against Syria’s Al-Jaish. If so, a tough campaign awaits with Al-Duhail of Qatar, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor, and Sepahan of Iran.
Only the top team from each of the five groups in the western zone — the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — are sure of a place in the second round where they will be joined by the three best-performing runners-up.
There are also other issues to be decided. The Asian Football Confederation ruled last week that each of the groups will be held in one centralized venue. The host cities have yet to be announced.
The timings have been changed too, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the 2022 World Cup that will take place in November and December. After the group stage ends on April 27, teams will have to wait until February 2023 to start the knockout rounds. The two-legged final is scheduled to take place on Feb.19 and 26.