Over the past couple of months, the football world has been watching Saudi Arabia. From Monday, however, the focus is on the Asian Champions League. Forty teams from all corners of the giant continent, 20 from the west and 20 from the east, are starting out, but there is no doubt who are the ones to beat.
Here are five talking points.
Saudi Arabia’s clubs have already taken tournament to new level
For years the Asian Football Confederation has wrestled with the problem of how to market the tournament to Asian fans, with mixed results. Some countries have really taken to the Champions League but others are somewhat lukewarm.
Now Saudi Arabia’s clubs have changed everything and taken the competition to a new level. Having Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema playing all over Asia is a dream come true for AFC officials in Kuala Lumpur.
If there are not millions tuning in now to watch Asia’s premier club competition then there will never be. The AFC has to use the star power they have been provided with to show what the continent has to offer.
With its huge star power, the Asian CL can possibly match its older European cousin in terms of quality, interest and excitement.
The pressure is really on Saudi Arabia
It was telling that Mumbai City posted a video of their players celebrating at being drawn in the same group as Al-Hilal. It is fair to say that the two games with the Riyadh giants will be the biggest in the history of the Indian club — whose players cannot wait to share the same pitch as Neymar in a competitive game. That is great for the competition and exactly what it needs. For the big Saudi Arabia clubs however, it could be a double-edged sword.
Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr have star power in their ranks that no other club in Asia can even come close to. This means that they are going to be huge scalps for the other teams, and every game is going to be like a cup final. Beating the likes of Neymar, Ronaldo, Benzema and others will be wildly celebrated.
It means that the pressure is really on. There will be plenty waiting to pounce if the Saudi Arabia teams fall at the first hurdle.
Ronaldo could be the difference
The five-time Ballon D’Or winner has also won the UEFA Champions League five times. Already a legend in the game, he can do something that has never been done before — deliver Asian success to Al-Nassr. The Yellows have never been continental champions with a runners-up spot in 1995 the closest they have come.
Ronaldo has been in fine form this season and sits on top of the goalscoring charts with seven. He has been driving the team forward in more than one sense of the word. He will be needed. Coming through the playoffs, it is not a surprise that Al-Nassr have a tough group. It starts with a tricky test in Tehran against the giants that are Persepolis. Then there are games against Al-Duhail of Qatar, semifinalists last year, and Istiklol of Tajikistan who have beaten Al-Hilal in recent years.
A good start is imperative and with four wins out of four in the league and Ronaldo finding the net on a regular basis, Al-Nassr have what it takes to ensure first place in the group. And if they manage that, they can go all the way.
Al-Fayha can spring a surprise too
Al-Fayha are making a rare appearance at the continental level after their amazing King’s Cup triumph back in 2022. They are not going to get the same attention as their compatriots but that may not be a bad thing.
The team from Al-Majmaah should not be underestimated. Coach Vuk Rasovic is a wily campaigner and his fellow Serbian in goal Vladimir Stojkovic tends to rise to the big occasion. There is also the highly dangerous Fashion Sakala in attack who is starting to settle in Saudi Arabia after his move from Scottish giants Rangers.
It is true that domestic form has not been great — though Asia may provide a welcome distraction — and the group is tough as Al-Ain of the UAE and Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan have lots of experience. But Al-Fayha could spring a surprise.
Qatar provide the biggest threat
The big three Saudi Arabia teams are the favorites in the competition and the ones to beat. In the western zone — the tournament is split into two geographic zones until the final — the biggest challenge is likely to come from Qatar.
Al-Duhail reached the final four last year and while they were thrashed 7-0 by Al-Hilal, officials in Doha insist it was a freak result. Hernan Crespo has the ultra-prolific striker Michael Olunga at his disposal and the Kenyan could be even more dangerous with new signing Philippe Coutinho making chances. Al-Sadd know how to win in Asia too and still have plenty of the Qatar national team on their books.
If the Saudi Arabian challenge is to be stopped, it is likely to be Qatar that does the stopping.