Four down, two to go for the Saudi teams in the 2022 AFC Champions League group stages. Reigning champions Al-Hilal are through to the knockout rounds, and Al-Shabab are nearly there. If the others are going to stake their claims, there is not much time left to do so. Here are five things we learned from the latest action.
1. Al-Hilal are first into the second round
Two goals from Odion Ighalo in the first half helped Al-Hilal to a 3-0 win over Istiklol of Tajikistan. It is now four wins out of four in Group A, which maintains the five-point lead at the top of the group with two games remaining.
More importantly, it guarantees the defending champions a place in the next stage, the first team to do so. It means that coach Ramon Diaz can start thinking about the resumption of the league campaign next month.
It has been the perfect stage so far in more ways than one for a team that has now won 12 out of 12 under Diaz, equalling the club’s second-longest winning streak.
The opener came after just eight minutes with a textbook goal. It was a textbook cross from Salman Al-Faraj and a textbook header from the Nigerian striker. He scored another fine strike later in the half, receiving the ball with his back to goal, turning to fire a low shot into the bottom corner.
In short, Al-Hilal were just too good for their opponents, who have now lost all four games.
2. The Nawaf Al-Abed show virtually ensures Al-Shabab progression
Al-Shabab have nine and a half toes in the knockout stages following a comfortable 3-0 win over Al Quwa Al Jawiya of Iraq. It puts the Riyadh team six points clear at the top of Group B with just two games remaining. A single point is all that is needed to secure first place in the group and a guaranteed place in the second round.
After dropping two points against the same team last week, no mistake was made here. Former Al-Hilal midfielder Nawaf Al-Abed has battled with injuries since starring with the national team on the road to the Russia World Cup and has since joined Al-Shabab. This was one of the midfielder’s best performances since making that move across the capital.
He scored a well-taken opener and then set up the other two for Carlos, though it should be said that the Brazilian did most of the work for his first, a glorious shot into the roof of the net from just inside the area.
When you have Al-Abed along with the Brazilian striker and Ever Banega of Argentina firing on all cylinders, Al-Shabab are not only too good for the Iraqi opposition but too good for many teams in the tournament.
Al-Shabab may not be the favorites but they have the talent to go all the way.
3. Al-Faisaly hang on for a valuable point
On the face of it, a 0-0 draw against Nasaf Qarshi, a team that Al-Faisaly had beaten just days previously, may look disappointing. Doubly so since earlier in the day, Al-Wehdat of Jordan did the Saudi Arabians a massive favor by beating Al-Sadd 3-1. That left Al-Faisaly with a chance to go six points clear at the top with two games to go.
Yet in a game where chances were at a premium, most of them went to the team from Uzbekistan, who were on top for much of the match. The hosts had few opportunities though Martin Boyle broke free late in the game and forced a great save from the goalkeeper.
At the very least, Al-Faisaly did not lose the game, and stay in control of the group thanks to a fine performance from goalkeeper Mustafa Malayekah. The old adage of “if you can’t win then at least don’t lose” applies here.
Next comes Jordan’s Al-Wehdat and a win for the Saudi team will send them team into the last 16 with a game to spare. It is still a great position to be in.
4. Al-Taawoun still enjoying Asian adventure
The 1-1 draw with Sepahan of Iran was probably a fair result with both teams having chances to take the victory. It was a scoreline that suited the Saudi Arabians more than the visitors. It leaves Al-Taawoun second in the group with seven points from four games, two behind the leaders Al-Duhail of Qatar, their next opponents.
The Buraidah club were a little open at the back at times with Sepahan hitting the woodwork twice before getting the equalizer. That is a concern that needs to be addressed going into the next clash.
While Al-Taawoun defeated Al-Duhail in the opening game, it was a close-run thing and the Qataris usually create plenty of chances and have the firepower to put them away. A draw would not be a terrible result and would keep Al-Taawoun on course for, at the very least, a place in the last 16 as one of the best placed runners-up.
5. Good news from the east
While the western zone has been fairly predictable, that has not been the case in the opposite half. As discussed previously, there is no Chinese challenge and Australian clubs don’t look like improving their AFC Champions League record so far.
On Matchday 2, three South Korean teams — remember, the country is by far the most successful in terms of Asian titles won — lost to Southeast Asian teams. Representatives from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are unlikely to go all the way but they have shown that even the likes of 2020 champion Ulsan Horangi are vulnerable.
Only one thing for certain is that there will be an eastern team taking on a western side in the final. At the moment, the western half is looking considerably stronger than its counterpart.