Saudi Arabia meets expectations as powerhouses, and a lesser light, march on in AFC Champions League

With Cristiano Ronaldo leading a formidable attack that also boasts Sadio Mané and Anderson Talisca, Al Nassr had no real issues marching on into the round of 16 in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League. Asian Football Confederation

After all the hype -- and heightened expectations -- surrounding the Saudi Pro League for its mega-spending ways over the past 12 months, its clubs certainly did not disappoint when it came to the big stage.

Not yet, at least.

With the group stage of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- done and dusted, Saudi Arabia's three giants in Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad all booked their places in the round of 16 with a game to spare.

And interestingly enough, there is even a fourth representative marching on even if they do not enjoy a similar stature.

But first, it should be noted how dominant the other three were in the group stage, with both Al Hilal and Al Nassr going undefeated in their six games, while Al Ittihad won five and lost one.

In total, they combined for 45 points out of 54 available and all won their respective groups.

Although their haul of 14 points was the lowest out of the trio, Al Nassr looked the most dominant as they regularly had all their stars on display -- with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mané and Anderson Talisca all combining to good effect and taking turns to fire their team to victory.

Al Hilal had to overcome a shock opening-day home draw with unheralded Navbahor -- and then what looks like a season-ending injury to main man Neymar -- in order to advance, although it certainly helped to have the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Salem Al-Dawsari and Malcom the call upon in the absence of their Brazilian talisman.

Al Ittihad also did not have it all their way with captain Karim Benzema not always available and yet to open his account in the competition, but they ultimately proved too good for the rest of their Group C competitors.

Now that they are through to the knockout round, all three will have reason to believe they can go further. Even all the way.

But the Saudi Arabia flag will also be flown by a fourth team: Al Fayha.

Hardly one of the SPL's traditional heavyweights, Al Fayha only returned to the top flight in 2021 but have been on a steady upward trajectory since.

A maiden piece of major silverware last May -- as they stunned all by beating Al Hilal on penalties to win the King Cup -- earned Al Fayha the debut ACL campaign they are currently going further in.

It must be remembered that, for all the attention the SPL has received for splashing the cash on numerous global superstars, that big spending has been limited to the four teams owned by the sovereign-wealth Public Investment Fund -- Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.

A club like Al Fayha still operate on a relatively modest budget, at least when compared to the four giants, so it is quite the achievement for them to have accomplished all they have in the past couple of years.

A quick glance at the Al Fayha squad also produces nary a name in the Ronaldo, Neymar or Benzema ilk, with Morocco international Abdelhamid Sabiri -- on loan from Fiorentina -- and veteran goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, who has featured at three editions of the FIFA World Cup, the most notable.

Even among their domestic contingent, only captain Sami Al-Khaibari can claim to have represented Saudi Arabia but he too has a mere two caps to his name, with Al Fayha boasting no current internationals in the Green Falcons ranks.

It makes what Al Fayha have done all the more impressive, even if it took them till the final day of the group stage to advance to the last 16 -- and by the smallest of margins, as they qualified by virtue of being the third and final best-performing group runners-up in the West Asia Zone.

Considering Al Fayha might not have been expected to join the other three in the knockout round, it could even be said that Saudi Arabian football has surpassed expectations so far in this season's ACL.

With all four teams now able to look forward to more continental football in 2024, each will be equally intriguing prospect -- from the Ronaldo-led Al Nassr to the Neymar-less Al Hilal, as well as the unfancied Al Fayha outfit making waves of their own in a far different manner.