The group stages of the AFC Champions League 2020 West Zone came to a dramatic conclusion in Qatar on Thursday with Iran Pro League champions Persepolis FC and Saudi Professional League side Al Taawoun FC claiming the two remaining spots in the Round of 16.
The West Zone matches had resumed on September 14 after a six-month break due to COVID-19 and 27 group fixtures were played in a span of 11 days across four venues. While two of the 16 teams failed to make it till the end after stricken by the pandemic, eight sides will now remain in Qatar to continue their continental journey.
All four teams from Group C began Thursday with a chance of advancing to the knockout stage. Going into the final set of fixtures, Al Duhail led the pack with nine points followed by both Sharjah FC and Persepolis on seven and Al Taawoun FC on six points.
Sharjah and Persepolis sparred for a win that would guarantee a knockout spot while Al Taawoun needed all three points against Al Duhail to go level on points with their opponents and leapfrog them with a better head-to-head record.
Persepolis took the lead in under two minutes against Sharjah, thanks to a Shoja Khalilzadeh header. Their second was also a header from Issa Alekasir before experienced midfielder Vahid Amiri made it 3-0 before the break. Substitute Mehdi Abdi sealed the 4-0 win putting the Iranians through.
Al Duhail, meanwhile, were on course to make it three ACL knockout stage appearances in a row until Australian attacker Mitchell Duke's sucker punch in the 86th minute. The goal threw Al Duhail out of the tournament and put Al Taawoun -- who had lost three straight before today -- through to their first-ever Round of 16 appearance with a 1-0 win.
Leaders stumble, but progress in Group D
In Group D, Qatar's Al Sadd SC and Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr FC both lost their final group stage matches. The results did not matter, though, as the two sides already booked their knockout tickets before the final matchday.
Emirati outfit Al Ain FC edged Al Nassr 1-0 with a first-half strike from Kodjo Laba while Al Sadd were downed by IR Iran's Sepahan FC 2-1. Reza Mirzaei and Sajjad Shahbazzadeh scored for the winners. Al Nassr topped the pool with 11 points while Al Sadd collected two points less than the leaders.
Who will step up in Al Hilal's absence?
There is no time to catch a breath for the teams that are still alive in the tightly-packed ACL. Games are coming thick and fast and with just a day's break between the group stages and knockouts, the tournament resumes with two Round of 16 clashes on Saturday.
This year's knockout stage features three teams from Saudi Arabia and two from Iran while the UAE, Qatar and Uzbekistan contribute one apiece.
Group A winners Al Ahli Saudi FC will face Group B runners-up Shabab Al Ahli Club of UAE in the first Round of 16 clash at the Al Janoub Stadium followed by a clash between Group A runners-up Esteghlal FC and Group B winners Pakhtakor Tashkent who will be featuring in their first knockout tie in a decade.
On Sunday, Persepolis, who finished top of Group C after the roller-coaster evening, will face Xavi Hernandez's Al Sadd while Al Taawoun, back from the brink, will take on Group D winners Al Nassr. All knockout ties will be one-legged affairs deviating from the competition's traditional two-legged format.
2019 winners Al Hilal Saudi FC had looked like strong favourites for back-to-back titles, but with them now out of the reckoning after getting hard hit by the coronavirus, it will be the perfect opportunity for another side to fly West Asia's flag in the Asian Champions League.