RIYADH: Twenty teams started the group stage of the 2022 Asian Champions League earlier in April and by the end of the month, 12 had fallen by the wayside.
Of the eight that are standing and heading to the knockout stages next February, there are three from Saudi Arabia, two from Qatar, and one team each from Uzbekistan, the UAE, and Iran.
With Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, and Al-Faisaly all winning their groups, it was a successful stage for Saudi Arabia with only Al-Taawoun, just a point clear of the relegation zone at home, missing out.
All games were played on home turf. The two Riyadh teams played in the capital, Al-Faisaly were in Dammam, and Al-Taawoun in Buraidah. It is not called home advantage for nothing, and it surely helped as did the absence of Iranian giants Esteghlal and Persepolis, expelled in January, but it was, nonetheless, a stage to remember for teams from the Saudi Professional League.
Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab were the standout performers in the stage, along with Al-Duhail of Qatar.
In Group A, Al-Hilal, the defending champions, were never in danger of not going through, winning their first four games. In each match, coach Ramon Diaz was able to call upon different players and they all did their bit with the 11 goals scored by nine different players.
The fact that just one point was collected from the last two games should not cloud a fine record, the four-time champions were already through by that point and have some crucial clashes coming up at home in the next few weeks. These continental tests may be perfect preparation, a chance for Diaz to give game time to many of his squad but without any travel needed.
In short, the 17-time Saudi champions showed the rest of Asia that they are, once again, the team to beat. The one downside is perhaps that the knockout stage will not start for over nine months, as the tournament follows switches from a calendar-year format. Surely, Al-Hilal would love to go straight into it and clinch a third continental crown in four years.
Their biggest challenge may not come from Doha, South Korea, or Japan but their home city of Riyadh. Al-Shabab have never been champions of Asia, but they caught the eye by dominating Group B, collecting 16 points, scoring 18 goals, and conceding just one.
The White Lions have had a decent record in the Champions League reaching semi and quarter finals, but this was their first appearance since 2015 and, if nothing else, they have reminded the rest of the continent that Al-Shabab may not quite have Al-Hilal’s strength in depth but are still a force to be reckoned with.
And no wonder. Ever Banega has been so consistent in an attacking sense, setting the tempo, creating chances, and scoring himself, that the Argentine does not perhaps get the credit he deserves. Brazilian striker Carlos enjoyed himself with five goals to be the third top scorer in the stage with Nawaf Al-Abed, Turki Al-Ammar, and Hattan Bahebri all scoring from deeper positions and impressing. It is not all about the attacking talent.
Goalkeeper Fawaz Al-Qarni was well-protected but made some crucial saves when needed with defenders Hassan Tambakti, Faraz Al-Saqour, and others stepping forward. With Marius Sumudica taking the head coach job in late March, the six games have been a great opportunity for the Romanian to get to know his players ahead of the final weeks of the domestic season. The league is now out of reach but there is still a chance for a top-three finish.
Al-Faisaly complete the successful trio and to finish top of their group was a fine achievement especially with them playing in Asia for the first time. There was some luck involved for a team that only won two of the six games, befitting a tight group — with just three points separating first and fourth — and a team that does not score many in the league either.
In fact, the Dammam men netted just five times, the fewest of the quartet but taking seven points from the first three games put them in control. Martin Boyle, who arrived from Scottish team Hibernian shortly before the group stages started, impressed in attack, and combined well with Julio Tavares. At the other end, veteran goalkeeper Mustafa Malayekah used his experience well to marshal a tight defense. Whatever happens, finishing two places above a star-studded team such as Al-Sadd, one that was expected to challenge for the title, should sustain the easterners as they return home to avoid relegation.
Closer to the trap door to the Saudi second tier are Al-Taawoun who were the only one of the four to miss out. They did finish second, but seven points was never going to be enough. This was no disgrace. Al-Duhail were runaway winners, and the Qataris have the firepower, though maybe not the defense, to go all the way, and Iran’s Sepahan and Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan both have proud records in Asia.
A tendency to concede late in games cost the Buraidah team points and ultimately a place in the next stage. Still, as they return home just a point above the relegation zone, Al-Taawoun should have gained confidence as well as more cohesiveness over six games in a short period of time under Dutch coach John van den Brom. The former Anderlecht boss at least knows his players better for the tasks ahead.
The four teams can all take positives from April. They return home to challenge for titles, the top three, or to try and avoid relegation a little tired but sharp and match-fit after competitive tests.
The 2022 Asian Champions League continues early next year but its influence will be seen over the coming weeks too. We have seen that Saudi Arabia’s teams are among the best in Asia, but it is now time to see who can shine at home.