DIYADH: After three games played, we are at the halfway point of the group stage. It was another exciting round of action. Here are five things we learned.
1. Al-Faraj keeps Al-Hilal perfect
Al-Hilal defeated Istiklol 1-0 to get revenge for their 4-1 loss from last year, but more importantly to move five points clear at the top of Group A with three wins from three. Another win in the next matchday could even put the defending champions in the knockout stages with two games to spare.
The Riyadh men were on top for most of the game with over three-quarters of the ball, but they found a well-organized defence in front of them and a Tajikistan attack that was still able to forge a couple of good chances.
It could have been a frustrating evening but then early in the second half, Salman Al-Faraj got the all-important goal with a nicely timed run to finish off an inviting cross from Yasser Al-Shehrani, but the captain was everywhere in attack. The whole array of flicks, feints and passes were on display to help keep the Central Asians on the back foot, with help from the lively Salem Al-Dawsari. This is an Al-Hilal team in great form and full of confidence and belief that they can beat anyone in Asia.
2. A welcome point and a good lesson for Al-Shabab
After starting the group with two comfortable wins, the Riyadh club were relieved to get a last gasp equalizer and a 1-1 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
Still, Al-Shabab should have had three points in the bag long before the Iraqis took the lead completely against the run of play midway through the second half — and it was a poor goal to concede from a set piece. The Saudi team made and wasted many chances with Cameroonian striker John Mary the chief culprit. The situation was looking grim heading into the 96th minute but a low shot from just outside the area from Hussain Al-Qahtani took a deflection and squeezed into the net.
Even a point felt a little unfair but it keeps Al-Shabab three points clear at the top of Group B with three games to go and it is a reminder that, despite the good start, the Champions League is a challenging competition. If they defeat the same opposition on Monday then they will have one foot in the knockout stages.
It was an important lesson, however. Against teams that sit back and defend and let you have the ball, there has to be a little more ruthlessness in attack.
3. Al-Faisaly put relegation worries to one side
A 1-0 win over Nasaf Qarshi has given the Dammam men seven points from the first three games, the best return ever from a Saudi team making a debut in this tournament. The only downside is that 1-1 draw with Al-Wehdat of Jordan in the opening game, a team that have lost their following two matches. Had that been another win then Faisaly would be five points clear, rather than three, at the top.
Regardless, it is a great start and another victory against the same Uzbekistan opposition on Tuesday will be another huge step towards the knockout stage, all this for a club that has spent the season battling against relegation.
It was far from an easy win with the Central Asians having numerous opportunities and even hitting the woodwork in stoppage time. They could not match the quality of Al-Faisaly’s goal, however. A fabulous Mohammed Al-Amri cross was nicely controlled by Julio Tavares and the Cape Verde striker made no mistake. The debutants are taking to this tournament very well indeed.
4. Al-Taawoun looking good
Al-Taawoun made it two wins out of three in a tough Group D with a 3-0 victory over Sepahan of Iran. The Buraidah club were helped massively by a tenth minute red card picked up by veteran Sepahan defender Ezzatollah Pourghaz for a rough tackle on the edge of the area. From then on, there was only one team going to win it with the Iranians fighting hard just to earn a point.
The Saudi Arabians, battling against relegation at home, stayed patient in their search for an opener and were rewarded with a fine header from Nawaf Al-Sobhi just before the break. Ze Luis added a second just after and that was the end of the contest. It was a perfect evening for the hosts.
Now they sit in first place with six points, level with the dangerous Al-Duhail of Qatar. If Al-Taawoun can repeat the victory over Sepahan on Monday then a top two finish will be likely. It won’t be easy. The Iranians will have their full contingent on the pitch and will be desperate to win and to keep their hopes alive but the Saudi team are growing in confidence.
5. A Saudi sweep as eastern clubs make their bow
Friday saw the eastern zone join the continental action with all the games taking place in Southeast Asia. With Chinese clubs either withdrawing or sending youth teams, it is likely that the usual suspects from Japan and South Korea will be the main challengers. The two best teams Kawasaki Frontale and UIsan Horangi played out a 1-1 draw. China’s two representatives, Guangzhou and Shandong have sent their youth teams and conceded 12 goals between them in the opening games.
They will have to work hard to overcome the western challenge. All four Saudi Arabia teams top their groups and it is not inconceivable that there could be a perfect allocation in the knockout stages. There is still some work to do but 29 points from a possible 36 is an excellent start.