In the competition’s expanded format of 40 teams playing in 10 groups, with the group winners in addition to the best six runners-up advancing to the Round of 16, competition will be more intense than ever to book a place in the knock-out stages.
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.
Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium: Located in the Al Malaz district of Riyadh, this stadium, opened in 1971, is often referred to as Al Malaz Stadium. It hosted the 1972 Gulf Cup and regularly serves as a home for the capital’s three topflight clubs - Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Shabab.
Bafetimbi Gomis – Al Hilal
Top scorer and MVP in the 2019 AFC Champions League, Bafetimbi Gomis is showing no signs of slowing down even at the age of 35. The former Olympic Lyon and Swansea City forward struck 27 league goals last season and is on 18 so far this season. If Al Hilal are to go far in the 2021 AFC Champions League, the Frenchman’s scoring form will be crucial.
Igor Jesus – Shabab Al Ahli
Ahead of the deadline for AFC Champions League squad submissions, head coach Mahdi Ali was left in the unenviable position of having to leave out recently signed Uzbek midfielder Odiljon Hamrobekov out of the squad. The reason? The form of 20-year-old Brazilian forward Igor Jesus was too good to ignore. The youngster has bagged 12 goals in his first season in the UAE Pro League and has now been trusted with the double mission of being a long term replacement for veteran Ahmed Khalil and to prove his manager right in opting for his services in the 2021 AFC Champions League.
Jovan Dokic – FC AGMK
FC AGMK’s qualification to the 2021 AFC Champions League group stage came in the most dramatic of circumstances, as Jovan Dokic struck in the last minute of extra time to help his side overcome Qatar’s Al Gharafa and realise their dream of a debut continental campaign. The Uzbek side will again look to Dokic for inspiration in the group stage. The goals might be a bonus, but the Serbian midfielder is an all rounded player who brings tenacity and order to AGMK’s midfield, something that will be dearly needed against vastly more experienced opponents.
Manuchekhr Dzhalilov – FC Istiklol
If you are an avid follower of Asia’s second club competition, the AFC Cup, then chances are you will be very familiar with Manuchekhr Dzhalilov. The 30-year-old Tajik international has been an ever-present in the Istiklol side that finished runners-up in 2015 and 2017. In fact, Dzhalilov was named the AFC Cup MVP in 2015. He now finally has the chance to test his talents against the continent’s finest in the AFC Champions League.
Encounters to Watch
A repeat of last year’s draw sees Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli Dubai pitted together once more. And while Al Hilal’s results in the 2020 AFC Champions League were annulled after their withdrawal, the fixtures between the two teams bring several interesting storylines.
First there is the history – In the 2015 AFC Champions League semi-final, Shabab Al Ahli (then known as Al Ahli) came away from King Fahd Stadium with a 1-1 draw, setting up a classic clash at their own Rashid Stadium where they led 2-0 at the break only to be caught by two second-half goals from Al Hilal. End-to-end action in the closing minutes of the match saw Korean midfielder Kwon Kyung-won emerge as a club hero as he struck deep in added time to send Al Ahli to their first ever AFC Champions League final and dash Al Hilal’s hopes of back-to-back appearances in the decider.
Scoring the second of Al Hilal’s two goals on that evening was Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo (pictured below). The former FC Porto player went on to become Al Hilal’s all-time foreign top scorer with 61 goals in his five-year stay in Riyadh. But on April 18, he lines up against the club where he is considered a fan favourite. The Brazilian joined Shabab Al Ahli in the summer of 2020 on a free transfer and is sure to receive a warm welcome from his former colleagues still at the club.
Eduardo is not alone, however, in returning to face his former club. UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman is still recovering from an Anterior Cruciate Ligaments injury suffered last year, but he has been included in his side’s AFC Champions League group stage squad, signaling he could be able to feature against the club he represented in 2018-19.
It is not all about Shabab Al Ahli and Al Hilal in Group B, though. The group also brings us a clash between two AFC Champions League debutants as Tajikistan’s Istiklol and Uzbekistan’s FC AGMK lock horns in a Central Asian derby.