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Group A: Istiklol stun Al Hilal in AFC Champions League classic

Riyadh: A blistering FC Istiklol put themselves firmly in the race to win Group A, stunning AFC Champions League heavyweights Al Hilal SFC with a 4-1 win at Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium on Saturday.

Manuchehr Dzhalilov and Manuchehr Safarov scored twice each for the Tajik side, who overwhelmed Rogerio Micale’s side with a barrage of goals either side of half time after Bafetimbi Gomis had opened the scoring on 24 minutes.

The result – one of the shocks of the tournament so far – puts the debutants top of the group with two matches remaining, with Al Hilal’s inferior head-to-head record sending them down to second place despite both clubs having seven points.

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It was a three-time Asian champion up against a side playing only their fourth AFC Champions League match and, in the beginning at least, things appeared to follow the script.

Fresh from a 3-1 win against the same opponents three days earlier, Al Hilal began well, clipping the outside of the upright through Hatan Bahbri in the 11th minute and forcing Istiklol goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov into an excellent low save to deny a thumping Andre Carrillo effort 12 minutes later.

There was nothing Yatimov could do a minute later, however, when Gomis ghosted in at the back post to head Mohammed Al Burayk’s cross into the net with an effort which tickled the near post on the way in.

Al Hilal’s goal was a worthy reward for a positive start, but Istiklol - despite managing just 26 per cent of first half possession - began to create chances of their own with increasing regularity at the other end of the pitch.

Rustam Soirov sent out a warning shot when he hit the side netting at the half-hour mark, and Istiklol were level in the 39th minute, with Manuchehr Dzhalilov perfectly positioned to poke home a low cross from his cousin Alisher, continuing both players’ excellent adaptation to the top level of Asian club competition.

But the senior Dzhalilov wasn’t done there, rocketing a 20-yard strike past Abdullah Al Muaiouf after receiving a pass from Soirov just five minutes later, and giving Istiklol a stunning lead over the 2019 Asian champions at half-time.

Remarkably, their lead doubled in size just four minutes after the interval, with Safarov’s attempted cross from the right-hand side floating over Al Muaiouf and into the net with the aid of the upright.

There was absolutely no doubt about Safarov’s intentions for Istiklol’s fourth however, with the energetic wing-back this time drilling the ball superbly into the bottom corner of the Al Hilal net after a powerful run and pass from Soirov, giving the Tajk side a barely believable 4-1 lead after 53 minutes.

Things went from bad to worse for Al Hilal when Salem Al Dawsari – only just on as a substitute – hobbled off with an injury just after the hour mark, and they failed to cut into Istiklol’s lead, giving a club that has long dominated Tajikistan’s domestic scene arguably their greatest win on the continental stage.

They’ll continue their Asian odyssey against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai on Tuesday, while Al Hilal will search for an immediate turnaround when they face Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC.

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