A gripping finale for the restarted 2020 AFC Champions League group stages in the West Zone is, once again, overshadowed by depleted holders Al Hilal’s alarming coronavirus crisis.
The Group B-winners, who named just three substitutes for Sunday’s goalless draw with Iran’s eliminated Shahr Khodro, have suffered 31 infections throughout their camp since they arrived in Doha a fortnight ago. Ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis, electric Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari and former Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco are among 19 players to have returned positive tests, though skipper Salman Al Faraj is one of three to recover.
Their weakened ranks will undertake an influential role in deciding who follows them into the round of 16. 2019 Uzbekistan Super League winners Pakhtakor possess a one-point advantage over the UAE’s third-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who are the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League victor’s last opponent on Monday.
The top two in each of the region’s four pools will continue their journeys throughout this unprecedented three-week charge, ending with October 3’s semi-final. Group D is the only one already decided, with Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and Qatar’s Al Sadd secure as the top two.
All four sides from Group C, in contrast, can progress on a thrilling Thursday.
The direct shootout between resurgent Sharjah, who smashed Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun 6-0 on Monday, of the UAE and third-placed Persepolis of Iran is the standout midweek clash, with both locked on seven points. A three-point buffer for leaders Al Duhail of Qatar – the other club to record a positive COVID-19 test on the ground – is likely to act as insurance versus the bottom-placed Saudis of Taawoun.
Al Wahda, of the UAE, were considered withdrawn from the competition when not allowed to travel by authorities because of their enforced 14-day quarantine linked to an outbreak. This enforced absence, plus subsequent decision to annul all their results, has created a scenario whereby Al Ahli Jeddah are through in top spot and Iraq’s Al Shorta sit second with no more games to play, but the latter require Iran’s Esteghlal to go winless on Monday versus the first-placed team to advance.
Strict medical protocols have been put in place for the unprecedented blitz through the West’s commitments, from four remaining pool matches left unfulfilled by March’s shutdown until next month’s last-four tie. These include tests every three-six days and limiting movement within a ‘medical bubble’.
The East Zone has been pushed back to November 15-December 13 from a proposed mid-October resumption. A one-legged final, rather than the usual two-legged affair, will be played in the West on December 19.
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