The group stage of this year’s AFC Champions League
finishes today after two months of great goals, shocks and sackings. Here are
five things we have learned ahead of the knockout stage.
SHORT-CHANGED SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia are the most successful West Asian
nation in terms of continental club championships won — only Japan and South
Korea have bagged more. So it does not sit right that this continental
powerhouse had only two teams in the group stage. Iran had four, the UAE had
four and Qatar had four, so it seems strange that Saudi Arabia (provider of two
teams in the past four finals) had just the two. If those other nations
deserved to have a quartet in the group stage, then so did Saudi Arabia.
INJURIES HAMPER AL-HILAL
It was only last November when Al-Hilal were unlucky
to lose the final of the AFC Champions League. The Riyadh giants should have
won against Urawa Reds, but were hampered by the injury to star Brazilian
attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo in the first leg. If he had stayed on the
pitch, Al-Hilal might have won the title and also got out of their group. Add
in the fact Omar Khribin played no part in this year’s group stages, also
because of injury, and you can see why the Saudi powerhouses might be bemoaning
EAST ASIA HOLDS NO FEARS
There are two teams that look especially dangerous
in the eastern side of the draw — Shanghai SIPG of China and South Korea’s
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. With Hulk and Oscar, the Chinese team have the
firepower to trouble the best Asian defenses. Jeonbuk have strength in depth
and an experience in the competition that is hard to match. Apart from that
duo, though, there is little West Asian teams have to fear.
UAE HOPES REAT ON OMAR
Al-Ain may have been champions in 2003 and
runners-up in 2016, but they struggled in the group stage with no wins in the
first four games. Ultimately, it was left to Omar Abdulrahman to step forward
in the final two games to inspire his team to two wins and second place in
Group D. If Al-Ain are to repeat their earlier success than it all depends on
their much-lauded playmaker. If he does not shine in Asia, neither do they.
UZBEKS DISAPPOINT AGAIN
There is real talent in the Central Asian nation,
but for some reason their teams rarely make any impact. Whether at club or
country level, Uzbekistan sides never quite deliver. The national team has been
on the brink of World Cup qualification more than once, but when the big prize
has been in sight, they have failed to step up. It is the same at club level
where they rarely fulfil their potential.