Al-Hilal could face old foes Al-Ain

Author: JOHN DUERDENThu, 2017-12-07 03:00ID: 1512591348685817300KUALA LUMPUR: Just ten days after losing the final of the 2017 AFC Champions League final, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal have been handed a tough draw for the 2018 edition. Al-Ahli also face a challenging route to the knockout stage. Al-Hilal, two-time winner of the Asian Club Championship but still without a win in its replacement tournament that was established in 2003, have been placed in Group D along with Esteghlal of Iran and Qatar’s Al-Rayyan.The four-team group, which kicks off on Feb. 13, is expected to be completed by Al-Ain of the UAE. The 2003 champions must first negotiate a play-off against Malkiya of Bahrain on Jan. 30. Al-Hilal defeated the UAE team at the quarter-final stage of the 2017 tournament on the way to losing to Urawa Reds of Japan 2-1 on aggregate in the final, the second time the Saudi side have fallen at the last hurdle in three years.Only the top two teams from each of the eight groups of four, split into western and eastern geographic zones, progress to the last 16.“When you play in this competition then you know that the games will not be easy,” a spokesperson for Al-Hilal told Arab News. “We have time to prepare for the games and are looking forward to the challenge.”Al-Ahli, who qualified as 2016-17 league runners-up behind Al Hilal, find themselves in Group A, also with Iranian opposition in the shape of Tractor Sazi and UAE champions Al-Jazira. Either Al-Gharafa of Qatar or Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor will complete the group after meeting in a January playoff.Should Al-Gharafa make it through, it could mean that Al-Ahli fans will be able, like their Al-Hilal counterparts, to attend just one home game. The western half of the draw has been affected by the severing of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2016. In 2017, games between clubs from these nations were played at neutral venues.It also remains to be seen what happens when Qatari teams and those from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, who cut ties with the 2022 World Cup hosts in June, are pitched against each other.On Nov. 28, the tournament organizer, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), reiterated its support for home and away venues being used for the 2018 competition. The AFC’s Executive Committee agreed that all member associations should discuss with their respective governments if any special permission for teams to travel is needed.Despite such efforts, an official at the AFC, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Arab News that it is expected that games between Iranian and Saudi Arabian teams, as well as those from countries involved in the deepening political crisis with Qatar, will be played at neutral venues.There are no such concerns in the eastern zones, though. Al-Hilal’s conquerors Urawa failed to qualify for the 2018 edition and will not be able to defend their title. The 2016 champions, Jeonbuk Motors, return after the South Korean powerhouse was barred from the 2017 edition after a club scout was found guilty of bribing referees in the Korean domestic league in 2013.
Main category: Sports

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