Contenders, big matches and key questions - we break down the 2021 AFC Champions League draw

The opening matches are still more than two months away, but that won’t stop us from breaking down Wednesday's draw and examining what to expect from a mouth-watering selection of groups in the West Zone.

GROUP A
Al Hilal SFC (KSA)
Shabab Al Ahli Dubai (UAE)
FC Istiklol (TJK)
Al Gharafa (QAT) or AGMK FC (UAE) (Play-off winner)

Who has the pedigree?

Al Hilal are not only one of Asia’s biggest clubs but one of the continent’s most successful, with their most recent AFC Champions League title coming in 2019.

Many of those victorious players – including Bafetimbi Gomis, Salem Al Dawsari and Andre Carrillo, all heroes in the final – remain at the club and they’ll be eager to add to their extensive trophy haul.

The big question: Can FC Istiklol cut it against Asia’s best?

Long proven to be by far and away the best club in Tajikistan, the Dushanbe club will finally have the chance at the top table of the Asian game after seven successive domestic titles.

Packed with Tajikistan national team talent and accustomed to winning matches in a dominant manner, one of the power clubs of Central Asian football will be eager to make a splash.

Key match-up

Al Hilal will be considered favourites to top the group, but with second place no longer guaranteeing a place in the Round of 16, they will be particularly wary of a Shabab Al Ahli side which ultimately advanced at their expense in 2020.

The cancelled Matchday Six clash between the two sides last year meant Shabab Al Ahli’s former Al Hilal star Carlos Eduardo can still look forward to a reunion with his former club.

Elsewhere, there may be a rare Central Asian derby between Istiklol and AGMK, should the Uzbek side prevail against Qatar’s Al Gharafa in their play-off.


GROUP B
Sharjah (UAE)
Tractor FC (IRN)
Pakhtakor (UZB)
Al Wehda (KSA) or Air Force Club (IRQ) (Play-off winner)

Who has the pedigree?

Group B is far from easy, but by the lofty standards of the AFC Champions League it is a section with a conspicuous lack of continental contenders.

Tractor have never been beyond the Round of 16, Sharjah’s sole quarter-final appearance was 17 years ago and while Pakhtakor did reach the last eight in 2020, doing so ended a decade-long knockout stage drought of their own.

The stage is set for someone to make Group B their own, and every team in the group will sense the opportunity.

The big question: Can Tractor’s veteran trio deliver one last triumph?

Ashkan Dejagah, Masoud Shojaei, Ehsan Hajsafi. The names read like a who’s who of Iranian national team stars from the past decade, and all three will be eager to take Tractor further than they’ve ever been in Asia.

With 257 caps between them, the trio’s reputation and status are beyond question, and their presence will make Tractor one of the more interesting sides on the West side of the draw in 2021.

Key match-up

The seemingly even nature of the group means no game can be taken for granted, and with either three-time AFC Cup winners Air Force Club or the talent-packed Al Wehda still to join via the playoffs, Group B looms as one where every single point will be valuable.


GROUP C
Al Duhail SC (QAT)
Al Ahli Saudi FC (KSA)
Esteghlal FC (IRN)
Al Shorta (IRQ)

Who has the pedigree?

Esteghlal are former Asian champions who are appearing in the competition for the 11th time in 13 years, but Al Ahli can perhaps boast a better recent record, making the knockout stage seven times in the last nine seasons, including an appearance in the 2012 final.

Al Duhail are champions of Qatar and have firmly established themselves as ACL regulars without ever truly contending for the title, while Al Shorta’s 2020 group stage exit was their first appearance in the tournament for 15 years.

The big question: Will familiarity breed entertainment from returning trio?

In a quirk of fate, Al Ahli, Esteghlal and Al Shorta will resume hostilities just months after they all met in what ended up being a three-team Group A in the 2020 competition.

It proved to be one of the closest groups in the entire tournament, with just one point separating top from bottom. Will history repeat, or will the addition of an Al Duhail side packed with attacking talent open up the group?

Key match-up

Every draw has a ‘group of death’ and this may well be it on the West side of the draw, with a string of mouth-watering fixtures ahead,

Al Shorta will feel they have unfinished business against both Esteghlal and Al Ahli after being knocked out on the final Matchday in 2020, while Al Duhail will be equally desperate to atone for their exit from last year’s tournament.

For a clash of the star strikers, look no further than the duel between Omar Al Soma’s Al Ahli and Al Duhail, who have added 2020 J1 League Golden Boot winner Michael Olunga to a side which already features Almoez Ali.


GROUP D
Al Sadd SC (QAT)
Al Nassr (KSA)
Al Wehdat (JOR)
Foolad Khouzestan (IRN) or Al Ain FC (UAE) (Play-off winner)

Who has the pedigree?

Of the confirmed qualifiers, Al Sadd have the most decorated record in the competition, winning the title in 2011 and reaching the semi-finals in two of the past three seasons, but Al Nassr enjoyed a history-making run to the final four last season

Seventeen-time Jordanian champions Al Wehdat are debutants at this level, while Al Ain, should they qualify, will arrive having won the ACL in 2003, and lost finals in 2005 and 2016.

The big question: What can we expect from Al Nassr?

With Abderrazak Hamdallah banging in a tournament-best seven goals, and only a penalty shootout defeat denying them a place in the final, you would assume Al Nassr would be eager to pick up from where they left off in the 2020 competition, but things have been far from easy for the Riyadh club.

A horror run of just two wins in their next 10 matches after that semi-final precipitated the departure of head coach Rui Vitoria, and while things have improved under new boss Alan Horvat it remains to be seen which Al Nassr side will be on show in April.

Key match-up

Al Sadd vs Al Nassr jumps off the page. The Qatari club have been absolutely electric domestically, scoring a remarkable 30 goals in their last five games, but Al Nassr remain a significant hurdle in the race for the one guaranteed place in the Round of 16.

Their two meetings last year finished in 2-2 and 1-1 draws, and many will be eager to see what comes next from two of West Asia’s genuine contenders.


GROUP E
Persepolis FC (IRN)
Al Rayyan SC (QAT)
FC Goa (IND)
Al Wahda FSCC (UAE) or Al Zawraa (IRQ) (Play-off winner)

Who has the pedigree?

There is little doubt about it, Persepolis are the power club of Group E. Losing finalists in 2018 and 2020, the winners of four successive Iran Pro League titles are edging closer and closer to a breakthrough ACL title.

Alternatively, Al Rayyan have appeared in the group stage nine times since 2005 without ever going any further, while Goa are the first ever Indian side to reach this stage of the competition.

The big question: Will 2021 finally be the year of Persepolis?

No more than 15 minutes after Persepolis had lost the 2020 AFC Champions League final to Ulsan Hyundai, head coach Yahya Golmohammadi was talking about the chase for the 2021 title.

A giant club, and one which has come to expect success, Persepolis will be desperate to finally become Asian champions in 2021, but achieving that goal will be impossible without a successful run of results in Group E.

Key match-up

In terms of determining group winners, the clashes between Persepolis and Al Rayyan loom as crucial ones, but the first appearance of FC Goa will be a fascinating experiment.

Of all the clubs making their ACL debut in 2021, none represent a country bigger than India, and millions will be watching on to see how prepared one of the top clubs from the ever-improving Indian Super League is to compete against the best in the continent.

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