Al Hilal move into Champions League last 16 despite defeat

Michael Church
·2-min read

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Former champions Al Hilal squeezed into the knockout rounds of the Asian Champions League by the slimmest of margins on Friday as the 2019 winners progressed to the last 16 as one of the best runners-up despite a 2-0 loss at the hands of Shabab Al Ahli.

Igor Jesus's brace earned the already-eliminated club from the United Arab Emirates all three points in Riyadh, but a 1-1 draw between Group C rivals Al Duhail from Qatar and Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia meant Al Hilal secured the final runners-up berth.

Only the 10 group winners in the newly expanded competition are guaranteed to qualify for the Round of 16 and they are joined in the knockout rounds by the six best runners-up.

Clubs in the west Asian half of the draw have been playing in centralised hubs due to the pandemic throughout April, with teams in the east set to play their matches in June and July.

Al Hilal finished second in Group A behind debutants Istiklol from Tajikistan, who lost 2-1 in their final group match against AGMK from Uzbekistan, but both clubs progressed.

They are joined in the next phase of the competition by Iranian sides Esteghlal and Tractor.

Esteghlal topped Group C in Jeddah thanks to their 1-0 win over Iraq's Al Shorta while Tractor booked their spot from Group B as one of the three best runners-up from west Asia.

The pair join compatriots Persepolis in the next round after they confirmed their progress on Thursday as Group E winners.

Sharjah from the UAE had also advanced in first place from Group B on Thursday while Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr had qualified as Group D champions.

Al Wahda, also from the UAE, had already claimed one of the runners-up berths, leaving the battle for the two remaining runners-up spots to go down to the wire on Friday.

The 1-1 draw between Al Duhail and Al Ahli proved pivotal, with both teams needing to win to stay alive.

Michael Olunga gave Al Duhail the lead with a free kick before a 67th minute penalty miss by the Kenya international swung events away from the Qatari club.

Asiri Haitham levelled for Al Ahli six minutes later and the resulting draw meant Al Hilal sneaked in to take the third runners-up spot ahead of Xavi Hernandez's Al Sadd by virtue of having scored more goals.

The results mean last year's beaten finalists Persepolis will take on Istiklol in September's Round of 16 with Sharjah meeting Al Wahda in an all-UAE clash.

Iranian teams will meet clubs from Saudi Arabia in the other two matches, with Esteghlal taking on Al Hilal and Tractor meeting Al Nassr.

(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by Stephen Coates)