AFC Champions League West Zone returns: Al Hilal look to defend title

Al Hilal will look to continue their recent dominance after winning last season's AFC Champions League and taking the title in the Saudi Pro League. AP Photo

After a six-month delay because of the coronavirus pandemic the 2020 AFC Champions League, Asia's premier club football competition, returns to action on September 14.

The West Zone, with clubs from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Uzbekistan, will resume first with Qatar as the base.

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The East Zone, featuring teams from China, Thailand, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Malaysia, will will restart in Malaysia on October 17.

Season so far

The AFC Champions League, which usually runs from February to November, kicked off its group stage on February 10.

The matches involving China's clubs were affected first. By the second week of March, all matches in both zones were suspended by the AFC.

Teams from the four West Zone groups had played two matches each with three teams -- defending champions Al Hilal Saudi FC, their local rivals Al Taawoun FC and Uzbek champions Pakhtakor Tashkent -- still maintaining a perfect record.

A total of 27 matches were played and 69 goals netted in the group ties before the competition stopped. After repeated delays, AFC announced in July that the matches will resume in September at centralised venues.

What happened during the break?

Most countries in Asia have been wrapping up their domestic league campaigns. Many leagues that were postponed have since returned, but a few were cancelled.

The domestic season in UAE ended with no champions with Shabab Al-Ahli Club leading the table. The Iraqi Premier League was also cancelled in June and the standings from the 2018-19 season will decide the champions league slots from the country for 2021.

In Saudi Arabia, the league concluded on September 9 with Al Hilal winning the title over contenders Al Nassr and Al Ahli. All will resume their continental campaign along with Al Taawoun.

Al Duhail emerged champions of the Qatar Super League edging Al Rayyan SC by a single point. In Iran, Persepolis secured their 13th title finishing 14 points ahead of runners-up Esteghlal SC after the league's return.

Uzbekistan have had its league suspended twice before resuming in August. The country's sole ACL representative, Pakhtakor, are currently leading the pack with 38 points after 15 games.

Things to look out for

New players and coaches

The virus hasn't stopped clubs from conducting business in the transfer market.

Al Sadd made the most high-profile move during the break by bringing in midfield maestro Santi Cazorla from Villarreal. He will work under former Spain teammate Xavi Hernandez, who himself has committed to the club despite rumours linking him to Barcelona.

Former champions Al Ain FC have added young Brazilian defender Erik Jorgens de Menezes and Angolan forward Wilson Eduardo to their roster, while another Emirati outfit Al Wahda have bolstered their squad with Slovenia international forward Tim Matavz.

Bafetimbi Gomis, the joint top scorer of ACL 2020, signed a two-year contract extension at Al Hilal. Persepolis recruited veteran goalkeeper Hamed Lak, forward Issa Alekasir and winger Saeid Aghaei.

There have been changes in coaches as well with Vladan Milojevic replacing Christian Gross at Al Ahli. Shabab Al Ahli, who lost both their matches in the ACL 2020 so far, have replaced Rodolfo Arruabarren with Gerard Zaragoza.

Shahr Khodro will have former Iran international Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh in the dugout while their rivals Sepahan have Moharram Navidkia replacing Amir Ghalenoei, who resigned after a Hafzi Cup quarterfinal loss to Esteghlal in August.

New format here to stay?

With the pandemic still lingering, the format the AFC have adopted this season also looks likely to stay for the near future. The matches in four groups of the West Zone will be held at four venues in Qatar: the Khalifa International Stadium, Education City Stadium and Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, along with the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah.

The winners and runners-up from the four groups will qualify for the knockouts, which will now be held as single-leg ties until the finals. This is different from the home-and-away, two-legged fixtures the competition used before.

The venue for the final has yet to be decided. Though the format takes away some of the past excitement, it could be argued that it is the only viable option right now to have such a competition in Asia where many countries are still struggling to contain the pandemic.

Who are the favourites from the West Zone?

Al Hilal are looking to become the first club since Al Ittihad in 2005 to win back-to-back AFC Champions League titles and their domestic run, in which they won eight matches in a row since the restart in August.

Qatari giants Al Sadd have unfinished business in the ACL after bowing out in the semifinals last season and after enduring a tough domestic campaign this season. They will want Cazorla to be firing on all cylinders straight away forming a dangerous attack alongside the likes of Akram Afif, Hassan Al Haydos and Baghdad Bounedjah.

The Saudi duo of Al Ahli and Al Nassr will also be in the mix, as will Al Duhail. But Pakhtakor could spring a surprise in this year's Champions League -- with Uzbek international Igor Sergeev and Serbian forward Dragan Ceran having displayed an appetite for goals all throughout the year.