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Al-Hilal champions lead Saudi and Arab success in longest AFC Champions League season

RIYADH: Twenty teams started the Asian Champions League 2022 group stage earlier in April and by the end of the month, 12 had fallen by the wayside.

Of the eight who are standing and heading to the round of 16 next February, there are three from Saudi Arabia, two from Qatar and a team from Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates 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 one point from the relegation zone at home, missing out.

All matches were played at home. Both Riyadh teams played in the capital, Al-Faisaly was in Dammam and Al-Taawoun in Buraidah. It’s not called home advantage for nothing, and it surely helped as did the absence of Iranian giants Esteghlal and Persepolis, who were sent off in January, but it was nonetheless a milestone to remember for Saudi Professional League teams.

Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab were the most notable performers on the scene, along with Al-Duhail from Qatar.

In Group A, Al-Hilal, defending champions, never ran the risk of not qualifying, winning their first four games. In each game, coach Ramon Diaz was able to call on different players and each did their part with the 11 goals scored by nine different players.

The fact that just one point has been picked up in the last two games shouldn’t cloud a fine record, the four-time champions had already passed that stage and have some crucial clashes to come at home in the coming weeks. These continental tests can be a perfect preparation, a chance for Diaz to give playing time to several members of his team but without any travel necessary.

In short, the 17-time Saudi champions have shown the rest of Asia that they are, once again, the team to beat. Perhaps the only downside is that the knockout stage won’t start for another nine months, as the tournament follows the changes of a calendar year format. Al-Hilal would surely love to go straight there and clinch a third continental crown in four years.

Their biggest challenge may not come from Doha, South Korea or Japan, but from their hometown of Riyadh. Al-Shabab have never been Asian champions, but they grabbed attention by dominating Group B, picking up 16 points, scoring 18 goals and conceding just one.

The White Lions have had a decent record in the Champions League reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals, but it was their first appearance since 2015 and, if nothing else, they reminded the rest of the continent that Al -Shabab may not quite have Al- Hilal’s strength in depth but is 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 perhaps the Argentine doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Brazilian striker Carlos enjoyed five goals to be the third top scorer on the stage with Nawaf Al-Abed, Turki Al-Ammar and Hattan Bahebri all scoring from deeper and impressive positions. It’s not just about offensive talent.

Goalkeeper Fawaz Al-Qarni was well protected but made crucial saves when needed with defenders Hassan Tambakti, Faraz Al-Saqour and others coming forward. With Marius Sumudica taking over as head coach at the end of March, the six games were 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 of a top three finish.

Al-Faisaly completes the successful trio and finishing top of their group was a great achievement, especially with them playing in Asia for the first time. There was luck for a side that won just two of six games, which befits a tight group – with just three points separating first and fourth – and a side that doesn’t score much in the league no more.

In fact, Dammam’s men scored just five times, the fewest of the quartet, but by taking seven points in the first three games, they were in control. Martin Boyle, who arrived from Scottish side Hibernian shortly before the start of the group stage, impressed in attack and combined well with Julio Tavares. At the other end, veteran keeper Mustafa Malayekah used his experience well to organize a tight defense. Whatever happens, finishing two places above a star side like Al-Sadd, who were expected to fight for the title, should support the Easterners as they return home to avoid relegation.

Closer to the Saudi second tier hatch is Al-Taawoun who was the only one of the four to miss. They finished second, but seven points was never going to be enough. It was no shame. Al-Duhail was a dazzling winner, and the Qataris have the firepower, but 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 Buraidah’s side points and ultimately a place in the next stage. Yet, heading home just one point above the relegation zone, Al-Taawoun should have gained confidence and cohesion in six games in a short time under Dutch coach John van den Brom. The former Anderlecht boss at least knows his players best for the upcoming tasks.

The four teams can all take positives from April. They return home to fight for the titles, the top three, or to try to avoid relegation a little tired but lively and fit after competitive tests.

The 2022 Asian Champions League continues early next year, but its influence will also be felt over the coming weeks. We’ve seen that Saudi Arabia’s teams are among the best in Asia, but now it’s time to see who can shine at home.