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AFC Champions League (West): 5 Things To Look Out For

Doha: The games are coming thick and fast in the 2020 AFC Champions League with the group stage moving towards a dramatic climax in the coming days. 

The Saudi trio of defending champions Al Hilal, Al Ahli and Al Nassr have all confirmed their places in the knockout rounds but five spots remain up for grabs in the West.

With several mouthwatering fixtures to take place in Doha in the days ahead, brings you five things to look out for in Asia’s premier club competition.

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1. Sharjah eyeing Round of 16

Sharjah’s surprise 4-2 win over Al Duhail on Friday has left all four teams in Group C with a fighting chance of reaching the knockout rounds as just three points separate Persepolis at the top of the standings and the Emiratis at the bottom.

The 2018-19 UAE Pro League champions arrived in Doha having not played any competitive games since March and after a 2-1 loss to Al Duhail on their first game back left them with just one point from three games, few would have given them much hope of advancing to the Round of 16.

That all changed when Igor Coronado and Caio scored in the final 15 minutes in the return meeting with the Qataris to reignite their campaign and they will now go into Monday’s Matchday Five tie against Al Taawoun, who have lost two on the bounce, with renewed belief.

A second successive victory could take them into the top two and would leave qualification in their own hands ahead of Thursday’s game with Persepolis. With their lack of match action and a poor start to the tournament, Sharjah are suddenly eyeing a remarkable turnaround.

2. Is Bounedjah back to his 2018 form?

Baghdad Bounedjah posted a record-equalling 13 goals as Al Sadd reached the 2018 semi-finals before falling just short against Persepolis, so much was expected of the Algerian ahead of the 2019 campaign. However, despite the Qatari team again reaching the last four, he surprisingly scored just three times.

The 2020 edition began with four points from six for Al Sadd yet their main man up front drew blanks once more meaning he went into the tournament resumption having scored just three times in 13 games since his side bowed out at Azadi Stadium in 2018.

But things seem to be looking up again for Bounedjah as he scored three times in two games against Al Ain in Doha, while he now has had more shots on target (10) than any other player in the competition and his Matchday Four performance saw him named among the eight candidates for the Toyota Player of the Week.

It all bodes well for Al Sadd’s game against already qualified Al Nassr on Monday when a win would confirm their place in the last 16 and ensure they avoid a potentially nerve-racking clash against Sepahan on Thursday. With Bounedjah seemingly firing on all cylinders again, the Qataris can approach the week with confidence.

3. Key duo to boost Al Duhail ahead of Persepolis clash

With home advantage and a Matchday Three victory over Sharjah, Al Duhail looked in a strong position to progress to the knockout rounds with minimal fuss. Indeed, 2-1 up against the same opponents on Matchday Four and everything was moving swimmingly.

However, everything changed on the hour mark as experienced Moroccan Medhi Benatia was sent off, thus beginning an Al Duhail collapse that saw them concede three times in the final 30 minutes as the 4-2 defeat meant they fell to third in Group C with two games to play.

Group C - MD4: Sharjah 4-2 Al Duhail

But in a huge boost for Al Duhail, particularly considering they are still without long-term absentee Bassam Al Rawi in the heart of their defence, the former Bayern Munich and Juventus defender has since had his suspension overturned and will be available for the vital match-up with table-toppers Persepolis on Monday.

In further good news for the Doha side, Belgian winger Edmilson has also been passed fit and suddenly, while the pressure remains on Al Duhail, things are looking far rosier than they were a day ago. Regardless of what happens on Monday Group C will go to the wire, but Walid Regragui's team will have had spirits raised ahead of Matchday Five.

4. Al Shorta face nervous wait

Four points from two games have seen Al Shorta move into second place in the three-team Group A, three points clear of Esteghlal, who they drew 1-1 with on Sunday. But with the Iraqis’ group stage games now complete, they require a favour from already qualified Al Ahli Saudi.

On Wednesday, Esteghlal will round off their group stage against the Saudi side, who have also already confirmed top spot, and if they fail to win then Al Shorta will become the first team from their country to ever reach the AFC Champions League knockout rounds.

However, as Al Shorta and Esteghlal cannot be separated by virtue of their head-to-head record, the Tehran giants would take second position and qualify for the next round if they win by any other score aside 1-0. 

Complicating matters further, should Esteghlal win 1-0 then it all comes down to their respective disciplinary records. While history could be just around the corner for Al Shorta, there is nothing they can do but watch on nervously.

5. Pakhtakor must rediscover winning touch

Two draws and a defeat in Doha have proved sufficient for Pakhtakor to go into their final group game with their destiny in their own hands but they now need to get back to winning ways against already eliminated Shahr Khodro to seal a place in the next round.

Sunday’s goalless draw against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai means they begin Wednesday’s match against Shahr Khodro a point ahead of the Emiratis thanks largely to their two wins from two on home soil back in February.

While the Uzbek champions need only to equal Shabab Al Ahli’s result to qualify, the Dubai team face an Al Hilal side who have already won the group and have been depleted by a COVID-19 outbreak within the camp.

Pakhtakor’s last win in the competition came back on Matchday Two when they eased to a 3-0 victory over Shahr Khodro. Three more points against the debutants would secure a spot in the knockout rounds for the first time since 2010; anything less and they could face an early exit.

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