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Group A: Al Hilal move top with AFC Champions League win over Istiklol

Riyadh: Al Hilal SFC boosted their chances of 2021 AFC Champions League knockout stage qualification, going three points clear of their Group A rivals with a 3-1 win against FC Istiklol at Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium on Wednesday.

Hatan Bahbri starred for Rogerio Micale’s side, setting up Ali Hadi Al Buyahi’s opener before making the points safe with two goals of own, while Vahdat Hanonov scored for Istiklol in the first of two matches between the sides in four days,

The result takes Al Hilal to seven points from three matches, with Istiklol - who suffered their first defeat in the competition - joined by AGMK on four at the half-way point of the group stage.

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The 2019 AFC Champions League winners promised to pose Istiklol’s biggest test yet in their maiden campaign and the Tajik side nearly found themselves behind within 12 minutes, with Bafetimbi Gomis rounding goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov after intercepting an Alisher Dzhalilov back pass, only to miss the target from a prohibitively acute angle.

Istiklol made do with minimal possession as in their draw against Shabab Al Ahli and win over AGMK, but Al Hilal’s ascendancy paid off when Al Buyahi volleyed home the opening goal in the 39th minute, beating Yatimov from 12 yards after being supplied by Bahbri following a short corner routine.

The lead lasted just two minutes, however, with Istiklol coming up with a quick reply through full-back Vahdat Hanonov, who pushed up the pitch to drill the ball beneath Abdullah Al Muaiouf, benefitting from a quality control and pass from Manuchehr Dzhalilov four minutes before half-time.

Possession, shots and every other meaningful statistic except goals were strongly in Al Hilal’s favour at half-time, but they set that record straight seven minutes after the restart, with Bahbri cutting in and beating Yatimov with a peach of a 15-yard effort after Mohammed Alburayk had the last pass in a lovely team move, and there would be more joy to come for the group hosts.

Bahbri’s superb night continued in 64th minute, deftly chipping Yatimov after the Istiklol shot-stopper had rushed out to intervene when Bahbri had set Gomis free on goal, with the Saudi Arabia international making no mistake after the loose ball had spilled directly into his path.

The two sides will do it all again at the same venue on Saturday, with another Al Hilal win in that fixture potentially going a long way to deciding the final make-up of the group.

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