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ACL2020 - Matchday Three (West): 5 Things To Look Out For

Doha: It’s been a long, long time since the last ball in the 2020 AFC Champions League was kicked, when Sydney FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors played out a draw on March 4, but after more than six months the Continent’s most prestigious club competition returns on Monday. 

After much deliberation, the tournament will take place in centralised venues with the sides from West Asia resuming their campaign in the coming days in Qatar and those in East Asia following suit later in the year.

Much will be different for players and fans yet, ultimately, the teams are still striving for the same goal: to be crowned champions of Asia. Ahead of the big kick-off – Matchday Three in the West – highlights five things to look out for.

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1. Will home advantage spur Qatari duo?

Doha giants Al Duhail and Al Sadd were the beneficiaries of the decision to move to a centralised location and, as all the teams around them attempt to adapt to their new environs, the pair have the considerable advantage of home comforts.

Both have performed well in recent years and at times been considered real title contenders. Al Sadd progressed to the 2018 and 2019 semi-finals, falling just short on each occasion, while Al Duhail’s record-equaling nine-game winning run in 2018 showed their capabilities when firing on all cylinders.

Al Sadd added guile with the acquisition of Santi Carzola and their midfield and frontline now look formidable. Al Duhail may have lost Mario Mandzukic but have genuine quality going forward with the likes of Almoez Ali, Edmilson Junior and Brazilian Dudu, who arrived on loan from Palmeiras.

While there are no plans to let fans into the stadiums, familiarity with their surroundings should give the pair an edge over the other teams. They’ve both gone deep in the tournament in recent campaigns, but with the group stage and knockout rounds being played in Qatar they have a great chance to go even further.

2. What can we expect from depleted Persepolis?

Tehran giants Persepolis wrapped up their fourth successive Iranian Pro League title in July as their dominance in their homeland showed no sign of letting up. But, after appearing in the AFC Champions League semi-final in 2017 and final a year later, they faltered in 2019, falling at the group stage.

The 2020 competition began with defeat to Al Duhail and a draw with Sharjah, both away from home. Since being crowned champions of Iran, meanwhile, goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand has moved to Belgium and striker Ali Alipour is currently finalising his move to Portugal.

While Beiranvand’s void will be extremely tough to fill, Alipour’s departure could prove more troublesome. In a team built around defensive stability rather than attacking flair, he had been Persepolis’ top scorer for three successive years domestically and the last two on the Continent, while he also netted their only goals of the 2020 campaign to date.

Add in that inspirational captain Jalal Hosseini, 38, is another year older and they will not have the considerable advantage of ‘Fortress Azadi’ and it’s fair to say they face a tall order to reach the knockout rounds, something that would surely be considered a success.

3. Points in the bag for Pakhtakor

Pakhtakor began the 2020 AFC Champions League in fine fashion, claiming home wins against Shabab Al Ahli and Shahr Khodro – the latter in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Pakhtakor Stadium – as they and defending champions Al Hilal opened up a six-point lead at the top of Group B.

At the time, perhaps the only drawback was that three of their final four group games were to be played away from home where, last year, there had been a marked difference in form. In 2019, seven of their eight points were claimed in Tashkent and it was results on the road that cost them a place in the last 16.

While the Uzbek side are technically playing away games in Qatar, home advantage for their opponents has been wiped out. Pakhtakor have already reaped the rewards from playing in front of their fans, now they must aim to take advantage of a lack of support for their opponents.

Shota Arveladze has built an excellent squad in recent years, replete with Uzbek internationals and a sprinkling of foreign talent. Despite kicking off their four games on neutral ground with a double header against Al Hilal on Monday, they should fancy their chances of reaching the knockout rounds for the first time since 2010.

4. Lack of competitive action for UAE and Iraq sides

While the leagues in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have all been back in action for some time, the same cannot be said for those in the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, where the 2019-20 seasons were cancelled and the 2020-21 campaigns have yet to start.

This gives the Emirati trio of Al Ain, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai and Sharjah, as well as Iraq’s Al Shorta, an even bigger mountain to climb, particularly when considering the quartet’s last competitive action came back in early March.

Between the four teams they have so far picked up just two points from a combined seven games and three of them prop up the standings in their respective groups. They now must prepare to face off against sides who should be primed and ready after already overcoming the obstacles of post-lockdown football.

Al Shorta's opening-day draw against Esteghlal back in February offered evidence they could mix it with the more established AFC Champions League clubs and a positive result against Al Ahli Saudi on Monday would put them right back in the mix. The UAE trio, though, will need to be up and running from the off should they want to fulfill their knockout round aspirations.

5. Formidable Al Hilal to pick up where they left off?

Arguably the most star-studded squad in the 2020 AFC Champions League, Al Hilal resumed the Saudi Pro League in emphatic style. Seven wins from eight games wrapped up their 16th title by finishing eight points clear of city rivals and 2018-19 champions Al Nassr.

The Asian and Saudi Arabian champions resume their Group B campaign having already collected six points from six back in February, when the 2019 top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis netted three times in wins over Shahr Khodro and Shabab Al Ahli.

Al Hilal kick off what they hope will be three weeks in Qatar with back-to-back games against Pakhtakor. Four points could see them into the knockout rounds by September 17, a year to the day from when a come-from-behind 3-1 quarter-final win over Al Ittihad was arguably the catalyst for their 2019 triumph.

And it is their rivals from Jeddah that they will now be so desperate to emulate, with Al Ittihad the only team to have ever retained the AFC Champions League title. Despite several players having tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Qatar, Razvan Lucescu’s side will have full belief they have the quality to do just that.

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