The 2021 AFC Champions League's group stage has been a rollercoaster ride ever since play in the west zone kicked off two weeks ago and the final day did not. With four knockout berths still up for grabs on Friday, the action was frantic as clubs vied for the few coveted spots.
Tournament debutants FC Istiklol, Iran's Esteghlal FC and Saudi giants Al Nassr FC joined the last 16 as group winners alongside Sharjah FC and Persepolis FC -- who had already progressed. Meanwhile, 2019 champions Al Hilal SFC barely eked through -- despite losing on Friday -- to join Iran's Tractor SC and UAE's Al Wahda as one of the three best runners-up.
Lucky escape for Al Hilal as Al Duhail, Al Ahli cancel each other out
Qualification for the final berth in the last 16 boiled down to the late kickoff between Al Duhail and Al Ahli in Group C. The winner of the match had the chance to book their passage to the knockouts, but a draw would mean Al Hilal, who had lost to UAE's Shabab Al Ahli Club in Group A, were the ones to progress as one of the second-placed teams.
An in-form Michael Olunga gave Al Duhail the lead just past the hour mark, but substitute Haitham Asiri levelled for the Saudis in a 1-1 draw that eliminated both sides -- with only Esteghlal progressing from Group C as the toppers and joining Persepolis as the second Tehran-based side in the last 16.
The major beneficiaries of the draw, however, were three-time Asian champions Al Hilal who pipped Al Sadd SC on goal difference to progress as one of the three best runners-up. Rogerio Micale's men rode their luck after despite a defeat on the final day and will have to step up if they want to progress deeper in the competition come September.
Has the time finally run out for Xavi at Al Sadd?
Even the third time hasn't proven to be a charm for Xavi Hernandez and Al Sadd as the Qatari side's campaign came to a disappointing conclusion on Friday after failing to progress as one of the runners-up. The club's performance on the continental stage will again raise questions about their star manager back home.
Handed the reins of the club after the ACL group stages in 2019, Xavi guided the Wolves to the semifinals in his debut season where they lost 5-6 on aggregate to Al Nassr. The Spaniard's first full season in Asia saw Al Sadd huff and puff into the knockout stages, but lose 1-0 to eventual finalists Persepolis FC in the Round of 16.
They were considered one of the favourites this year after going through their domestic league unbeaten, but have endured their worst season in Asia in recent times. Despite having some of the biggest talents in Asia under his disposal, Xavi's ACL record may be a bad mark as the Spain legend works toward his dream job at Barcelona.
Istiklol bear the flag for newcomers with a fairytale run
As of the four newcomers in this season's expanded 40-team AFC Champions League, Tajikistan's Istiklol proved their critics wrong to make it to the last 16 as Group A winners. They beat out Saudi giants Al Hilal and UAE's Shabab Al Ahli and validated the league's move to include clubs from nations with developing football programs.
Despite a 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan's AGMK FC on the final day, Istiklol qualified after their closest rivals Al Hilal also lost their final fixture. With three wins and a draw in the group, Mubin Ergashev's side have truly made the step up from the AFC Cup after finishing runners-up in the second-tier tournament in 2015 and 2017.
It was also a decent showing from the other debutants in ACL 2021 as Jordan's Al Wehdat bowed out with two wins including topping Al Nassr on Matchday 5. In Group E, Indian Super League side FC Goa bagged three impressive draws and were only one minute away from a historic first win for India in the ACL.
New-look Champions League is the biggest winner
The reaction to the proposed expansion of the UEFA Champions League might have been mixed in Europe. But, the revamp has been a hit from Day 1 for the AFC Champions League. New clubs and a new qualification format for the knockouts have breathed fresh life into the competition if the group stages are anything to go by.
With only three of the runners-up now moving into the next round and many giants running the risk of elimination very early, group stages created far more interest and excitement than previous editions. For instance, only two of the eight last 16 slots from West were left to be decided on the final matchday of ACL in 2019. But only two teams had progressed and six places were still up for grabs heading into Matchday 6 this time around.
The last two weeks have been eventful, but we are only halfway through the group stages of ACL 2021 as action in East Asia is slated to kick off in June. And if those games are as thrilling as the ones we have witnessed in the West, it could end up becoming one of the best advertisements for the sport in Asia.