RIYADH: And so it begins. The AFC Champions League kicked off this week with all the group games in the western zone taking place in Saudi Arabia. On paper that is a huge advantage but here are five things we learned from what happened on the pitch.
1. Al-Hilal are the team to beat
The champions started with a 2-1 win over Sharjah, a game that finished in the early hours of the Riyadh morning, and it was a deserved victory, a ninth in a row under coach Ramon Diaz. Saad Al-Shehri put the hosts ahead with an early penalty and while the UAE team were quickly level, a second half strike from Michael (the Brazilian forward has been slowly improving after his arrival in January) after a lovely pass from Matheus Pereira, won the game.
Injuries to Al-Shehri and also South Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo were the main downsides, though it is hoped that both will return to fitness before the end of the group stage.
The scary thing for the rest of the group is that it was done without the attacking talents of Salem Al-Dawsari and Odion Ighalo. It is obviously early in the competition but Al-Hilal will take some stopping in the group stage and in the western zone. At the moment, the defending champions are the best team in Asia.
2. Tawamba terrorizes Al-Duhail to give Al-Taawoun a famous win
Al-Taawoun are taking a break from a relegation fight at home and got off to a great start with a 2-1 win over Al-Duhail. The Qatari team, coached by Hernan Crespo, have what it takes to do well and may feel that they should have taken all three points but didn’t reckon on Leandre Tawamba. The Cameroonian striker changed the game.
The Qataris took an early lead after a bad goalkeeping error but soon after Tawamba scored what could already be the goal of the tournament.
He ran on to a through ball and then, with his first touch and at full speed, executed a perfect lob from outside the area that gave the goalkeeper no chance. It was just a world-class finish. Soon after he hit the post from outside the area and then with four minutes left and the score at 1-1, his smart backheel inside the area, led to Alvaro Medran scoring the winning goal.
The group is a tough one with Sepahan of Iran and then Uzbekistan powerhouse Pakhtakor and there is a lot of football to be played. But as starts go, Al-Taawoun have had a very good one and if Tawamba maintains this current form then who knows what could happen.
3. Banega gives Al-Shabab a good start
Al-Shabab fans would have expected to beat Mumbai City and will be satisfied with a solid 3-0 win. The star of the show, as is often the case when the Riyadh team play, was Ever Banega with two of the goals. It was a game made more difficult by Ramadan with the players breaking their fast on the bus on the way to the stadium.
The Indian debutants started well, before the six-time Saudi champions slowly started to take control. It was the first victory under new coach Marius Sumidica and while it was not the hardest of tests, there did seem to be a little more fighting spirit and steel in the team. What will take longer is to be more clinical in front of goal as good opportunities were wasted.
Tougher tests will come, starting on Monday against Al-Jazira of the UAE, who lost their opener 2-1 to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq. The Abu Dhabi club need to bounce back quickly and the clash could be a pivotal one in the group. Win that and Al-Shabab will be looking good for the next round.
4. Al-Faisaly’s debut positive but may regret dropping points
A 1-1 draw with Al-Wehdat of Jordan was not a bad way to start a first game in Asia’s flagship club tournament but there may be a feeling in Dammam that it should have been three points instead of one. There is still a long way to go in Group E but with Al-Sadd very much the favorites, Al-Faisaly may look back on this as two points dropped.
It started well thanks to a fine free-kick from Hicham Faik in front of their own fans and Faisaly continued to have chances in what became an entertaining game. Early in the second half however, the defense lost a little concentration and the Jordanian powerhouse were back on level terms.
The draw ended the chances of a Saudi Arabian clean sweep of wins and with Al-Sadd also drawing, though the Qatari team had two men sent off, it is all very tight in the group. They are Al-Faisaly’s next opponents and will give a much better idea as to whether the Dammam men have what it takes to succeed in Asia.
5. A good start for Saudi Arabia
It has already been noted that Saudi Arabia’s four teams took 10 points from a possible 12. West Asian rivals did not fare as well. Clubs from the UAE managed just one from nine with Qatar’s four representatives managing five points.
There is, of course, much football to be played. And while it may be too much to expect all four Saudi Arabian teams, two of which are struggling near the bottom of the domestic table, to go to the next stage, the country should at least have a healthy showing in the second round early next year.