Depleted Al Hilal held by Pakhtakor; Al Shorta wins first ever ACL match

Pakhtakor Tashkent held defending champions Al Hilal Saudi FC -- fielding a depleted roster after several of their players tested positive for coronavirus -- to a goalless draw in their AFC Champions League group stage tie at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar on Thursday.

The Saudi champions have set the pace in the competition this season winning all three of their Group B fixtures so far, but their squad has been hard hit by COVID-19 since landing in Qatar -- with 10 of their players testing positive for the virus since their arrival.

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On Thursday, three more players were quarantined after contracting the disease, joining the growing list that now includes centre-back Abdullah Al-Hafith and left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani who had played the full 90 minutes of Al Hilal's 2-1 win over the same side earlier this week.

The first half of the reverse fixture was played at a slow pace and chances were few and far between. But the second period began with the Saudi outfit coming out strong. At the hour-mark, Bafetimbi Gomis' towering header from a Sebastian Giovinco cross was kept out only because of a good save from goalkeeper Sanjar Kuvvatov.

Five minutes later, Giovinco found Gomis, last season's top scorer, inside the box again with a low cross after a short corner kick, but the French striker failed to keep his shot down. In the end, the deadlock could not be broken after 90 minutes and the two sides shared the points.

In the earlier kick off in the same group, Shabab Al Ahli FC recorded another 1-0 win over Shahr Khodro FC, just days after beating the same side by the same margin. The back-to-back wins under manager Gerard Zaragosa mean the UAE Pro League outfit now have six points from four matches -- only one point behind Pakhtakor and four behind group leaders Al Hilal.

The Emiratis threatened to take the lead early against the Iranians with Ismael Al Hammadi going close with a couple of efforts in the first half only to hit the side netting on both occasions. While the winner in the previous meeting came at the 75th minute, Shabab Al Ahli had to wait even longer Thursday as Spanish striker Pedro Conde came off the bench to clinch the victory with seven minutes remaining.

Al Hilal will face Shahr Khodro on Sunday while Shabab Al Ahli have a chance to leapfrog Pakhtakor in the standings when the two sides meet later on the same day.

Meanwhile in Group A, Iraq's Al Shorta SC won their first-ever Asian Champions League match by beating Al Ahli Saudi FC 2-1. It was Al Ahli's first loss in the 2020 ACL campaign.

Saad Natiq gave Al Shorta the early lead, rising highest to head a corner kick from Ali Faez Atiyah into the goal in the 14th minute. But, Al Ahli came back into the game 11 minutes into the second period as Mohammed Al-Majhad skipped past two challenges inside the box before applying the finish to make it 1-1.

The decider arrived in the 65th minute when right-back Kudhur Ali Al-Tameemi cut back a ball from the goal line for an unmarked Mazin Fayyadh who sealed the historic win and made his side favourites to progress from the pool along with Al Ahli, who have already guaranteed a place in the Round of 16 with two wins.

Al Shorta will take on cross-border rivals Esteghlal FC of IR Iran in their final group fixture on Sunday. Esteghlal, who are three points behind Al Shorta with a game in hand, will have to win that encounter to keep their hopes alive before facing Al Ahli on the final matchday in Group A. The group is down to three teams after UAE's Al Wahda FC withdrew this week.