Asia AFC Champions League

Defending Champs Al-Hilal Through to ACL Quarters

The knockout rounds for the 2022 AFC Champions League West Zone is finally underway with the round of 16 matches that were played on Sunday and Monday. Defending champions Al-Hilal were one of the eight sides safely through into the quarterfinal after the Saudi Arabian giants beat United Arab Emirates side Shabab Al-Ahli in a straightforward 3-1 win on Monday at the Al-Janoub Stadium in Qatar.

With the West Zone knockout round matches being played as a centralized tournament in Qatar following the success of the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the country, the remaining sixteen teams from the region lock horns in pursuit of eight tickets to the quarterfinal.

Group A winners Al-Hilal, who lost only one of their six group stage matches, take on Group C runners-up Shabab Al-Ahli, who were one of the three best runners-up of the West Region. Fresh off winning silver in the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco, Al-Hilal took only 17 minutes to break the deadlock thanks to a well-taken finish from former Watford man Odion Ighalo.

Goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf denied Shabab Al-Ahli’s Yahya Al-Ghassani from heading in his side’s equalizer right before the interval, before Al-Hilal cemented their dominance in the second half with two goals in a space of six minutes to put the game to bed.

Jang Hyun-soo slammed home a header into an empty Shabab Al-Ahli goal to make it 2-0 in the 73rd minute, before former Villarreal man Luciano Vietto planted Al-Hilal’s third in the 76th minute with a superb finishing touch on a pass from Salem Al-Dawsari.

Omar Kharbin pulled one back for Shabab Al-Ahli in the 86th minute but by then it was too little too late as Al-Hilal marched their way to a fourth ACL quarterfinal in six years.

Going through to the quarterfinal alongside Al-Hilal are their countrymen in Al-Shabab, who beat Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi 2-0 on Sunday. Qatari giants Al-Duhail are also through to the quarters after edging out countrymen Al-Rayyan on penalties at Doha’s Al-Thumama Stadium on Sunday, while Iran’s Foolad Khuzetstan took full advantage of the absences of Tehran giants Persepolis and Esteghlal to become the country’s continental flagbearers, booking their spot in the quarterfinal after edging out debutants Al-Faisaly of Saudi Arabia 1-0 on Monday.

Interestingly enough, due to the lengthy interval between the West Zone group stages and knockouts, 2021 Saudi King Cup winners Al-Faisaly were relegated out of the Saudi Professional League in between their qualification from their group and their appearance in the knockouts, meaning that Al-Faisaly were playing Foolad as a second-division team – the fourth team from outside the top-flight to play ACL football after Tokyo Verdy (2006), Emirates Club (2011), and Jeonnam Dragons (2022) but the first one to play in the knockouts.