AFC Champions League matchday one review: Neymar and Ronaldo start a thrilling chapter in Asia

AFC Champions League matchday one review – With the arrival of superstars like Christiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr. and Sadio Mane, this year’s AFC Champions League was one of the most highly anticipated events in this year’s football calendar. All eyes were on the Saudi Arabian big-spending heavyweights, but there were some refreshing surprises as well.

Some of the tournament favourites like Al-Ittihad, and Al-Nassr got off to winning starts, however, other big guns like Al-Hilal and defending champions Urawa Reds could only manage a draw. And while their English cousin side Manchester City got off to a winning UEFA CL defence, Indian outfit and City Group club Mumbai City succumbed to a defeat. We have a look at the highlights of the first game week.

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Performance of the week: Al-Hilal vs Navbahor 1-1

Uzbek side Navbahor probably pulled off the upset of the week, as they defied last year’s runner-ups Al-Hilal in a masterclass of defensive grit and determination. The Neymar-led Saudi side couldn’t break down the Uzbeks, despite having 77% ball possession and 20 shots.

Navbahor set up in a 4-4-2 formation in the King Fahd International Stadium; set to frustrate the formidable front three of Neymar Malcolm and Aleksandar Mitrović. Al Hilal monopolized the ball but couldn’t break down the resilient away side as they defended deep and with men behind the ball.

Against the run of play, striker Tabatadze got a goal, created by the tenacity of Abror Ismolilov in the 52nd minute to silence the home crowd. Al-Hilal had committed men forward and the Uzbek side capitalized on the counter. But if Navbahor had any attacking intent before the goal, they quashed it and completely focused on defending their lead.

Jorge Jesus made a double substitution in search of an equalising goal. However, even the star-studded front three was being repeatedly repelled by the gutsy defensive set-up of Samvel Babyan’s side.

The home side badly missed Sergej Milinković-Savić, the box-to-box midfielder who would normally operate in the base of a double pivot in their 4-2-3-1 formation. Without his driving runs from deep, Al Hilal looked slightly stale on the ball.

With so much talent on the pitch, the moment of inspiration surprisingly came from 33-year-old centre-back Al-Boleahi. The Saudi International rose highest to head home a cross from winger Michael at 90+10th minute to drag the favourites from the jaws of defeat.

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Star Man: Ali Al-Boleahi (Al-Hilal)

In a match featuring talent like Neymar, Neves, Mitrovic and Malcom few expected veteran Al-Boleahi to steal the spotlight like he did. The veteran centre-back defended exquisitely througout the game, was calm and composed on the ball.

When it looked like Al-Hilal would get nothing from the match, the 33-year-old came up with a moment of magic at the final kick of the game. The Saudi star headed in his first goal of the season to avoid defeat for his side in a dramatic AFC Champions league clash.

Honourable mentions

The other two Saudi heavyweights, Al-Ittihad and Al Nassr put in statement performances to stake their claim as favourites in this year’s AFC Champions League. Former Chelsea star N’golo Kante’s Ittihad side ran out 3-0 winners, whereas Portuguese superstar Christiano Ronaldo led Al-Nassr to a 2-0 win.

Persepolis 0-2 Al-Nassr

This was the most watched match of the entire week in the AFC Champions League and all because of one man; Christiano Ronaldo. Although his side won, fans were disappointed to not see CR7 score.

The main event of the game was Persepolis no.10 Milad Sarlak getting sent off. After which Al-Nassr won easily with an own goal from Danial Esmaeilifar, and Saudi left-back Mohammed doubled the lead for Ronaldo’s side.

AFC Champions League matchday one review: A thrilling journey starts
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Al-Ittihad 3-0 AGMK

Al-Ittihad were without their main man Karim Benzema, who was out through a combination of unspecified factors. However, that didn’t deter the Saudi side. The midfield duo of Kante and former Liverpool star Fabinho put in dominating midfield displays, and the other midfielder Romarinho profited with two goals.

Forward Haroune Camara got the other goal and didn’t let the home fans feel the absence of Benzema. For Uzbek side AGMK, this was a massive mismatch of strength and there wasn’t much they could do.

AFC Champions League matchday one – Final Thoughts

With some big names coming to play in Asia, the AFC Champions League is bound to get bigger, better and more exciting. The first game week was just a glimpse of that as superstars clashed and produced performances reserved for the European games. It can only get even more thrilling from now on.

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