Assessing Al Hilal, Al Nassr and the rest of West Asia's finest in 2020 AFC Champions League

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Play gets under way in the West on Monday when the region’s finest convene for the 2020 AFC Champions League’s group-stage kick-off.

Coronavirus fears have hampered play in the East, with lengthy postponements impacting matches that involve Chinese sides. Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, however, are free to begin their title defence after eight years of dominance from the other side of the draw.

Here is a rundown of all four groups from this part of the world:

GROUP A

Al Wahda: UAE, 3rd 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League

Key man: Sebastian Tagliabue

Rising star: Mohammed Al Shamsi

Best performance: 2007 semi-finals

A mid-season revamp at Al Nahyan Stadium will have bolstered confidence of a second-successive run into the knockouts.

‘Golden oldies’ Ismail Matar and Tagliabue have fired them to third domestically. Goalkeeper Al Shamsi, 23, is likely to be the new UAE No1 going forward and inventive ex-Standard Liege winger Paul-Jose Mpoku is at the forefront of a raft of winter buys.

A once-creaky defence has also kept clean sheets in three of its last four matches.

Al Shorta: Iraq, 2018/19 Iraq Premier League champions

Key man: Alaa Abdul-Zahra

Rising star: Safaa Hadi

Best performance: 1971 runners-up

Shorta emerge mid domestic disturbances that forced the 2019/20 Iraq league’s stoppage, plus rumours that star midfielder Hadi may soon depart for Russia.

Playing their home matches at Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium also doesn’t help.

But veteran Iraq forward Abdul Zahra showcased his continuing proficiency at the 24th Gulf Cup, while much is expected of Colombian forward Diego Calderon. They do, however, look set to struggle in this company.

Esteghlal: Iran, 3rd 2018/19 Persian Gulf Pro League

Key man: Cheick Diabate

Rising star: Mehdi Ghaedi

Best performance: 1970, 1990/91 winners

A former ACL winner now finds himself at the helm of one of Asian football’s giants.

Farhad Majidi lifted the trophy at Al Ain in the inaugural 2002/03 edition. He’s returned ‘home’ to Esteghlal after ex-Inter Milan boss Andrea Stramaccioni’s strained December departure.

Electric Iran Under-23 attacker Ghaedi annihilated Qatar’s Al Rayyan in the play-offs. The 21-year-old, backed up by centre midfielder Ali Karimi and towering Mali centre forward Diabate, has the ability to push Esteghlal into the top two.

Al Ahli Jeddah: Saudi Arabia, 4th 2018/19 Saudi Professional League

Key man: Omar Al Somah

Rising star: Abdulbasit Hindi

Best performance: 1985/86, 2012 runners-up

Ahli have recovered well from a disrupted start to the season.

Christian Gross’ return – for a third stint – has helped keep them in the mix for SPL honours and increase talk of a first ACL success. They also boast such strength in depth that ex-Germany playmaker Marko Marin has not made the cut for their four-player quota.

Injuries to Algeria scheme Youcef Belaili and Syria superstar Al Somah, however, could hurt them in the early running.

GROUP B

Al Hilal: Saudi Arabia, 2018/19 Saudi Professional League runners-up

Key man: Bafetimbi Gomis

Rising star: Nasser Al Dawsari

Best performance: 1991, 2000, 2019 winners

Hilal stand atop a mountain they’d waited so long to climb.

An excruciating 19-year wait to be proclaimed as Asian kings once more was ended in this winter’s one-sided final with Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds. If anything, the Crescent now look even stronger.

Coach Razvan Lucescu’s idea are deeper embedded, Gomis remains golden and Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco has hit top form. Only complacency can hurt them in these early matches.

Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club: UAE, 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League runners-up, 2018/19 President’s Cup winners

Key man: Leonardo

Rising star: Mohammed Jumaa

Best performance: N/A

A debutant – of sorts – in the ACL have high hopes in this competition.

The amalgamated club embark in a debut Asian campaign as holders of the Arabian Gulf Cup and President’s Cup, plus leaders of the AGL. Their previous guise of Al Ahli also were beaten finalists in 2015, memorably downing Al Hilal in the last-four.

UAE forward Ahmed Khalil remains, while South Americans Fede Cartabia and Leonardo – a scorer of nine ACL goals at Wahda in the last edition – boast sizeable threat.

If their defence holds firm, can advance.

Pakhtakor: Uzbekistan, 2019 Uzbekistan Super League champions, 2019 Uzbekistan Cup winners

Key man: Dragan Ceran

Rising star: Khojiakbar Alijonov

Best performance: 2002/03, 2004 semi-finals

No-one in this competition will relish a trip to Tashkent to face ex-Ajax and Rangers hero Shota Arveladze’s men.

Pakhtakor won the Uzbek double last term, have retained prolific ex-Serbia Under-21 centre forward Ceran and have, intriguingly, added enigmatic Switzerland striker Eren Derdiyok.

Appear locked in a battle with Shabab Al Ahli for a round-of-16 berth. Improved away form will be crucial if a repeat of 2019’s near miss is avoided.

Shahr Khodro: Iran, 4th 2018/19 Persian Gulf Pro League

Key man: Amin Ghaseminejad

Rising star: Ali Nemati

Best performance: N/A

Competition debutants who impressively defeated Qatar’s Al Sailiya on penalties to become Iran’s 13th-ever group-stage competitor.

Consistency of performance has seen them sit fifth in Iran’s top flight, within the chasing pack behind runaway Persepolis.

They will, however, be seriously hamstrung by a lack of star quality and limited impact of giant Ukrainian centre forward Myroslav Slavov.

GROUP C

Al Duhail: Qatar, 2018/19 Qatar Stars League runners-up, 2019 Emir of Qatar Cup winners

Key man: Almoez Ali

Rising star: Ali Nemati

Best performance: 2018 quarter-finals

Any side that leads its domestic competition and has added ex-Croatia, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid forward Mario Mandzukic to an attack that already includes 2019 Asian Cup sensation Ali would, usually, be considered a favourite.

Yet a heavy recent loss to Al Sadd, Mandzukic’s wretched start in Doha and uncertainty inherit in the recent shift in power from Rui Faria to Walid Regragui limit these aspirations.

Duhail have the talent and ambition to prevail. The question is, will they?

Al Taawoun: Saudi Arabia, 3rd 2018/19 Saudi Professional League, 2019 King’s Cup winners

Key man: Heldon Ramos

Rising star: Abdulmajeed Al Swat

Best performance: 2017 group stage

Last season’s surprise success story in Saudi Arabia get a second shot at Asia’s premier club event.

A historic King’s Cup triumph and surge to third was enjoyed by the men in yellow.

But coach Pedro Emanuel has departed, star striker Leandre Tawamba is injured and uncertainty surrounds a club down in fifth in the SPL.

Sharjah: UAE, 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League champions

Key man: Igor Coronado

Rising star: Majed Surour

Best performance: 2004 quarter-finals

The King are back after 16 years away.

A traditional heavyweight of the UAE game had fallen upon tough times, prior to 2018/19’s unforeseen surge to AGL glory.

Critical injuries to leaders Coronado and Shahin Abdulrahman have hampered their title defence. But the former is now training and the latter is back in the fold, joining impressive winter loan recruit – and 2016 finalist at Al Ain – Caio in the first-team fold.

If Sharjah’s squad can weather the strain, will fancy a shot at the knockouts.

Persepolis: Iran, 2018/19 Persian Gulf Pro League champions, 2018/19 Hazfi Cup winners

Key man: Alireza Beiranvand

Rising star: Bashar Rasan

Best performance: 2018 runners-up

Tehran giants Persepolis look well poised to get over 2018’s disappointing show and push for a first ACL crown.

The Red Army are well placed to retain their Iranian top-flight crown, plus retain the services of world-class Iran goalkeeper Beiranvand until a well-deserved summer switch to Belgium’s Royal Antwerp. An injection of goals is further provided by ex-Republic of Ireland striker Anthony Stokes and Nigeria’s imposing Christian Osaguona.

The recent parting with tempestuous Argentine coach Gabriel Calderon is a worry, while they also begin with two-successive away matches. These hurdles, however, should easily be cleared.

GROUP D

Sepahan: Iran, 2018/19 Persian Gulf Pro League runners-up

Key man: Kiros Stanlley

Rising star: Mohammad Mohebi

Best performance: 2007 runners-up

A once-familiar face returns to the ACL.

The previous three editions have been devoid of the side that stormed to 2007’s final. But veteran boss Amir Ghalenoei has proven a steady hand since his 2018 hiring, plus lofty centre forward Kiros is the reigning top scorer in Iran.

This is a tough section. In the aforementioned Brazilian hit man, Oman forward Muhsen Al Ghassani and Iran prodigy Mohebi, Sepahan possess the talent to challenge.

Al Sadd: Qatar, 2018/19 Qatar Stars League champions

Key man: Akram Afif

Rising star: Salem Al Hajri

Best performance: 1988/89, 2011 winners

This has been a curious spell for Spain legend Xavi and his gifted roster.

The blossoming talents of reigning AFC Player of the Year Afif and relentless Algeria striker Baghdad Bounedjah propelled Sadd to QSL success. Yet, after a wretched domestic run and poor 2019 Club World Cup, Xavi appeared moments from the sack at Sadd just when he was being linked to the Barca post.

An exacting section ensures Sadd must be at their searing best to advance.

Al Nassr: Saudi Arabia, 2018/19 Saudi Professional League champions

Key man: Abderrazak Hamdallah

Rising star: Abdullah Al Khaibari

Best performance: 1995 runners-up

After Riyadh rivals Hilal exorcised their Asian pain, is it now Nassr’s turn?

The men in yellow have never stood conquered the continent, a wound made raw by their neighbours’ recent success. Nassr had been eliminated in the quarter-finals by an enflamed Sadd and memories of that night still sting.

2019’s global top scorer Hamdallah is still in situ, still banging in the goals. The emergence of Saudi Arabia centre-back Abdullah Madu has added necessary granite for the SPL holders ahead of, what Nassr supporters insist, is a deep run in 2020.

Al Ain: UAE, 4th 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League

Key man: Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba

Rising star: Omar Yaisien

Best performance: 2002/03 winners

A perennial fixture in the latter stages has experienced a fallow period.

The Boss, 2002/03 winners and the UAE’s most-decorated club, were blitzed in 2018’s round of 16, eliminated in 2019’s group stage and required a play-off to advance this year. Hope of an improved display this time, though, does exist.

Emanuel is a coach of rare repute, UAE wide man Bandar Al Ahbabi is in the form of his life and Togo striker Laba cannot stop bagging. It should be tight in this pool – and Al Ain have enough to be competitive.

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