AFC Champions League: Saudi’s Al-Hilal eye the prize again

THE very long AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Champions League 2022 is finally heading towards its conclusion, with the West region playing its round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals in a compressed schedule in Qatar. The two-legged final won’t happen until late April and early May, Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan from the eEast region clinched their place last August.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, who won many friends in the recent FIFA Club World Cup when they beat Brazilian side Flamengo before losing 5-3 to Real Madrid, are still involved and are hoping to retain the trophy they won in November 2021 when they beat South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. 

This season, they topped a group that included Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Istikol. Their round of 16 opponents, another UAE side, Shabab Al-Ahli, were beaten 3-1 with Al-Hilal’s goals coming from Nigerian Odion Ighalo, who had a loan spell with Manchester United, Luciano Vietto of Argentina (and briefly Fulham) and South Korean Jang Hyun-Soo.

In the quarter-final on February 23, they will play in Al-Wakrah against Iran’s Foolad, a team that has already disposed of two Saudi Arabian sides in the competition. Foolad, from Ahwaz in Khuzestan, are not having an outstanding season in 2022-23 and are languishing in mid-table. But they are enjoying their best ever Champions League run. Nevertheless, Al-Hilal are favourites to win through and to eventually reach their third final in four years. 

Al-Hilal are the most successful side in Saudi Arabia with 18 league titles and four Champions League victories. Fellow Riyadh club, Al-Nassr, currently making headlines due to their signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, have never won the Champions League but they have secured nine Saudi titles. They are drawing 20,000-plus crowds at present but the overall average in the Saudi League is only around a thousand more than 2021-22. It remains to be seen if CR7 stays the course in a league that is much lower quality than the top European competitions he has become accustomed to.

The other quarter final on February 23 is between Qatar’s Al-Duhail and Al-Shabab of Saudi Arabia, to be played in Doha. Al-Duhail are coached by former Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo and are top of the Qatar Stars League. They have the current top scorer in the AFC Champions League, the Belgian Edmilson Junior, in their ranks, who has netted eight goals so far. He was a substitute in Al-Duhail’s penalty shoot-out victory in the round of 16 against Qatari stable-mates Al-Rayyan. Al-Shabab are currently level on points at the top of the Saudi Pro League with Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, they won their round of 16 tie against Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. 

The winners of the two West region quarter-finals will complete their semi-final on February 26 with the two-legged final on April 29 and May 6. If Al-Hilal make the final, it will be a repeat of the 2019 AFC Champions League final. The competition started in March last year, so it has been a long road to Saitama, where the second leg will be played.

FIFA Club World Cup: Chelsea’s bauble, but now scrap it or expand it properly

AS A Chelsea fan, I am pleased the club has won the FIFA Club World Cup, but I cannot help feeling the competition is an unnecessary interlude that we could do without. It’s hard to get too excited about a seven team tournament with five makeweights and a decent team from South America. 

It has all the attraction of a pre-season competition that could easily be diluted to an annual play-off between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the UEFA Champions League, but even then, is that worth it? We all know that the top European clubs are too strong for the best that South America can offer.

This isn’t trying to dismiss the top teams from Argentina and Brazil, because there’s nothing more romantic than the idea of Chelsea versus Boca Juniors, Manchester City versus River Plate and Liverpool against Flamengo. But this kind of imaginative thinking belonged to an age where unknown, mysterious teams used to play Europe’s top club in the old Club World Championship, a two-legged tie which was often brutal, dramatic and bordering on feral.

There’s nothing better in sport than claiming your team is the best in the world, but the FIFA Club World Cup is not the competition that truly determines that lofty title. It’s six teams who won their regional champions league along with a host nation side. It’s a little like putting the Premier League champions in a competition with the winners of the Championship, League One, League Two and National League and expecting a meaningful and satisfying tournament.

It’s no wonder it is hard work trying to get Europeans to take it seriously, they’ve been brought up on bloated competitions like the UEFA Champions League, the European Championship, the World Cup and Europa League. They have to work hard for their trophies, but the FIFA Club World Cup looks like a mid-season break, a few days in the sun to play a semi-final and final. Great for the fans who make the trip to places like the Middle East, Japan or Morocco, but there needs to be more substance.

If FIFA wants people to take it more seriously, then the competition has to be moved to centre stage. In other words, host it in a major football nation rather than the equivalent of football’s emerging markets. The cynics among us see this is as a way of raising money from highly-enthused associations who want credibility and to be part of the game’s mainstream and are willing to pay for it. A perfectly respectable ambition, but sometimes it appears FIFA are overdoing it. Want the FIFA Club World Cup to capture the imagination of a global audience? Move it to Madrid, Berlin, Paris or Buenos Aires. Better still, if they don’t fancy giving the 2030 World Cup to Uruguay, why not get them to stage the first expanded World Club Cup? Let the rising nations host it by all means, but if you want to build some positive momentum, get the mature markets behind it.

As it stands, the current format needs scrapping, for a minimalist format simply has too many weak teams. Put it another way, if the regular World Cup was a seven-team competition, how would Brazil, England, Mexico, Tahiti, UAE, Saudi and Egypt look? If, however, it was a 16-team programme, there would be enough strong sides to make for a more balanced schedule.

The South Americans see the competition as being prestigious and the idea of a World Cup for clubs, in theory, should be just that. They want to pit their skills against European clubs who have more money, dominate the football media and make the most noise. Since it became what it is today, Europe’s teams have been far too strong and the last winner from CONMEBOL was Corinthians in 2012, who beat Chelsea 1-0. 

In theory, given the financial resources and depth of their squad, Chelsea should win the FIFA Club World Cup. According to Transfermarkt, Chelsea’s squad is valued at £ 795 million, while Palmeiras’s is worth around £ 162 million. So, if nothing else, there is more at stake in not winning than actually winning as far as the club’s reputation is concerned.

That’s not a reason to run such a lop-sided and shallow competition. FIFA wanted to expand to a 24-team format, but the pandemic got in the way. They should experiment with 16 and see how it is received, not just by the fans, but also the participants. There’s already a crowded fixture calendar, so they have to find a way to make any new concept workable. 

Otherwise, bad organisation, domestic disruption and a tepid reaction from those clubs involved would make the exercise a failure. Meanwhile, Chelsea will enjoy another trophy and the supporters will relish singing “Champions of the World”, but the real pleasure is from denying someone else the honour. And that was probably the motivation all along. “We know it isn’t really a big deal, but we are not allowing another team the opportunity to say they are the best in the world.”