May 4 – The AFC wrapped up the group stages of its 2021 Champions League (West) last Friday with a number of last-minute surprises that saw some of the region’s biggest clubs miss the round of 16 in this which was an exciting end of group. to play.
Perhaps the biggest casualties were Qataris Al Sadd SC and Al Duhail SC, while the breakout club from the group stages was undoubtedly FC Istiklol of Tajikistan – making their group stage debut in the ACL – who edged 2019 winner Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) in the lead. group A.
Istiklol’s reward will be a final play-off against Iranian giant Persepolis, who dominated their group in Goa, India. Al Hilal also qualified for the next round to face another Iranian giant club Esteghal.
The expanded ACL – four additional teams in each of the West and East zones – added to the growing competitiveness of the largest club competition in the Asian Football Confederation.
The rise of clubs in the central region cannot be underestimated. FC Istiklol have benefited from a direct qualification for the group stages as champions of Tajikistan and have shown they are up to the challenge. They follow in the central region the path of newcomers traced in 2020 by Uzbekistan Pakhaktor who qualified for the quarter-finals before being overthrown by the possible finalists Persepolis.
The staging of the five centralized group phases – two groups in Saudi Arabia, one in Qatar, one in the United Arab Emirates and one in Goa, India – has been a major success for AFC’s covid protocols at a moment when cases of covid were on the rise, especially in India. .
The AFC had further refined its covid protocols from the consolidated stages and finals of the ACL 2020, increasing the number of tests and strengthening the team’s “ bubbles ”. The AFC recognized the work and cooperation of the host FAs to ensure groups end without incident.
One of the main factors in this regard has been the high level of vaccinations against covidus in the general population of the Gulf countries that host them. Despite this, the organization and efforts of the AFC and its hosts were described as “extraordinary” by one observer.
The eight Western Zone teams in the last 16 will now return to action in September. Prior to that, AFC will complete the group stages of its AFC club (its club competition for nations ranked outside of its top rank), followed by the preliminary group stages of its Asian qualifiers (Qatar 2022 World Cup and FIFA World Cup). ‘Asia 2023), and Eastern Zone Champions League Qualifiers. The calendar has very little room to breathe.
Qualifying in the western zone sees three teams from Iran, two each from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and one from Tajikistan occupying the eight places. Round knockout venues and dates will be announced at a later date.
Last 16 AFC Champions League (West Zone)
Istiklol (TJK) vs. Persepolis (Ira)
Sharjah (UAE) vs Al-Whada (UAE)
Esteghal (Ira) vs. Al Hilal (KSA)
Al-Nassr (KSA) vs Tractor (Ira)
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