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Preview – 2021 AFC Champions League: Group D

Riyadh: The group stage of the 2021 AFC Champions League (West) is set to kick off in the coming days as 20 teams get their continental campaigns underway.

An intriguing Group D in Riyadh will see Al Wehdat become the first side from Jordan to ever appear in the competition as the Amman club will go up against Qatar's Al Sadd SC, Iranian team Foolad Khouzestan and hosts Al Nassr.

With the opening round of fixtures taking place on Wednesday, looks at the stadiums, key players and games to keep an eye out for.

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The Venues

King Fahd International Stadium: Saudi Arabia’s national stadium and the biggest ground in the country was opened in 1987 with a capacity of 67,000 fans. Since then, it has hosted a range of sporting events including the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup as well as AFC Champions League finals in 2014 and 2017. The venue is currently the home of Riyadh sides Al Hilal and Al Shabab.

King Saud University Stadium: The modern and dynamic King Saud University Stadium is a multi-purpose 25,000 capacity venue in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh. Although now the home of Al Nassr, the venue was used by city rivals Al Hilal for their AFC Champions League campaigns in 2018 and 2019, with the latter including the showpiece event where the West Asian heavyweights hosted Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds

The two venues have recent history for Al Sadd in particular, albeit both occasions are bittersweet. At the 2019 campaign, Al Sadd lost to Al Nassr at King Fahd International Stadium in the first leg of the quarter-finals, although they did ultimately emerge victorious from the last eight showdown.

In the semi-final second leg at King Saud University Stadium, Al Sadd finished 4-2 winners on the night against Al Hilal, but the damage had already been done in the first leg of the final four clash and the Qataris were eliminated 6-5 on aggregate.

Key Men

Santi Cazorla – Al Sadd

A hard-working, versatile, and highly technical two-footed player, Santi Cazorla needs little introduction to fans of the beautiful game.

The diminutive playmaker made his name at Villareal and Arsenal before joining Al Sadd in July last year. Playing under compatriot Xavi, a man who knows a thing or two about talented midfielders, Cazorla has repeatedly shown what he may now lack in pace, he hasn't lost in sublime skills.

Cazorla already had his first taste of continental action at the 2020 edition, but will be determined to help his side improve on their disappointing quarter-final exit from last year.

Alongside the attacking talents of 2018 top scorer Baghdad Bounedjah, and 2019 AFC Player of the Year Akram Afif, Cazorla and Al Sadd could be set to light up Group D.

Abderrazak Hamdallah – Al Nassr

A perennial winner of the top scorer award in the Saudi Pro League, it was only a matter of time before Abderrazak Hamdallah did the same on the Asian stage. And the Moroccan striker duly did so at last year's edition netting seven to finish on top of the charts.

The Al Nassr frontman, who has also scored in the AFC Champions League previously for China PR's Guangzhou R&F and Qatari sides El Jaish and Al Rayyan, will, however, have mixed memories of the 2020 edition.

Individual plaudits and accolades were earned, but ultimately Al Nassr stumbled at the penultimate hurdle, losing to Persepolis of IR Iran in the semi-final. A result, and regret, that will surely drive Hamdallah, and his teammates, to attempt even greater heights in this year's tournament.

Mohammad Al Dmeiri – Al Wehdat

As newcomers to the AFC Champions League, Al Wehdat will be looking to the more experienced players in their line-up to guide them through the unknown, and few among them can fit the bill better than captain and full-back Mohammad Al Dmeiri.

With close to 80 international caps and two AFC Asian Cup campaigns for Jordan, Al Dmeiri's relationship with AFC club competitions goes back over 14 years to the 2007 AFC Cup with the left-sided defender having since participated in seven subsequent editions.

Indeed, while Al Wehdat may be making their debut in the AFC Champions League, Al Dmeiri will not. The veteran appeared for Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad in their 2014 quarter-finals against Al Ain, albeit in a losing effort. The skipper will be hoping his next outing will have a happier outcome.

Ayanda Patosi – Foolad Khouzestan

Scorer of the goal that effectively killed off Al Ain's hopes of a comeback in Foolad Khouzestan's 4-0 play-off win over the Emirati side, Ayanda Patosi is returning for his second appearance in the AFC Champions League group stage having previously turned out for fellow Iranian side Esteghlal in the 2019 edition.

In a side that has domestically tended to be built around a solid defence, the South African attacking midfielder leads the way in Foolad's scoring charts in the Iranian Pro League in what is his second season with the club after having made his loan move from Cape Town City permanent in 2020.

Patosi spent the early years of his career in Belgium with Lokeren, where he twice won the Belgian Cup, while he has also turned out in both his homeland and the United Arab Emirates. As his current team prepare to embark on what is their first AFC Champions League campaign since 2015, the 28-year-old will likely have a major role to play in what is an intriguing-looking Group D.

Encounters to watch

Based on last year's competition, Al Sadd and Al Nassr have to be considered genuine candidates to go all the way this year, and the meetings between the two, a repeat of 2020's Group D, will thus be of particular significance.

Neither side could gain the advantage in their pair of ties in 2020 that resulted in two highly entertaining stalemates. A close-fought battle can be expected once more when these powerhouses clash.

Group D - MD1: Al Nassr 2-2 Al Sadd SC

Al Wehdat's debut in the AFC Champions League will naturally have great significance for Jordanian football as they seek a historic maiden victory and, as an unknown package, could shock some of the regulars. Fans of the Amman side will be eagerly awaiting their tournament bow against home team Al Nassr on Wednesday.

Foolad are making just their fourth appearance in the competition but they have faced Al Sadd three times previously, twice in the 2015 group stage when they drew one and lost the other and, most notably, a year earlier when the Qatari side claimed an away goals victory in the Round of 16. Their return to the tournament sees them open against the Doha club on April 14.

Poll ends at 16:00 (UTC+8) on April 13.

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