Defending champions Al Hilal Saudi FC were forced to withdraw from the AFC Champions League after the Saudi Professional League side failed to field the required minimum of 13 players for their final group stage match against Shabab Al Ahli Club on Wednesday.
Al Hilal, which had 15 members test positive for coronavirus last week, asked the Asian Football Confederation to postpone their final Group B tie after having only 11 players, including three goalkeepers, available. The AFC stated shortly after calling off the tie that they deemed the 2019 winners to have withdrawn from ACL under the "Special Rules Applicable to AFC Competitions during COVID-19 pandemic."
All matches featuring Al Hilal, who had already booked a place in the Round of 16 before the final matchday in Group B, were ruled null and void. As a result, Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor Tashkent and UAE's Shabab Al Ahli progressed to the knockout stages without having to kick a ball on Wednesday.
"Competition regulations allowed for 35 players to be registered by each club, but Al Hilal registered 30 of which only 27 traveled to Doha at the beginning of the competition," the AFC said. It added that accepting the Saudi club's demand to postpone the final group fixture would have had "a huge negative impact on the current match schedule of the ACL West Zone and so, no exception was granted."
Razvan Lucescu's side are the second outfit to be thrown out of the Asian Champions League season after UAE Pro League club Al Wahda FC failed to make it to Qatar for the resumption of the West Zone matches earlier in the month.
In the only match of the group on Wednesday, which became inconsequential, Pakhtakor defeated an already-eliminated Shahr Khodro FC 1-0, courtesy of a second-half strike from Jaloliddin Masharipov. The Uzbek champions progress with 10 points, three better than Shabab Al Ahli.
Meanwhile, IR Iran's Esteghlal FC booked a place in the knockout stages from Group A after defeating Al Ahli Saudi FC 3-0 at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah. Esteghlal join Al Ahli in the next round from the group which was made a three-team affair after Al Wahda's withdrawal.
Esteghlal went into the final game of the group three points behind Iraq's Al Shorta SC in second and knew that they needed to defeat Saudi giants Al Ahli by a margin of more than one goal to book a place in the knockout stages of the continental competition.
The Iranians took the initiative to go on the offensive against an Al Ahli side that made six changes from the previous game and gave a run out to their youngsters. Esteghlal attacker Mehdi Ghayedi, 21, struck from distance in the 29th minute to give his side a perfect start to the crucial encounter.
Their lead was doubled nine minutes later when Ghayedi assisted Ali Karimi's header. Malian midfielder Cheick Diabate then sealed the 3-0 result with another header from Karimi's pass in the 54th minute and ensured Esteghlal's passage into the Round of 16.