Al Hilal and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club set for unique ACL restart amid coronavirus concerns

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Coronavirus’ spectre continued to haunt the 2020 AFC Champions League as play in the West Zone prepared to recommence on Monday in unprecedented fashion after a six-month cessation.

The disease’s virulent spread, which has infected more than 2 million people in the Middle East, forced continental action to be halted in March. A three-week jamboree was then organised from September 14-October 3 in Doha for the four remaining group games, round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals.

Flare-ups related to the illness, however, have cast a shadow over the restart. The UAE’s Al Wahda were barred from travel to finish their Group A-commitments because of a break out which enforced a 14-day quarantine, while weekend testing on the ground in Qatar picked up six cases from holders Al Hilal – five players, one member of the management team – and one player from recently crowned Qatar Stars League winners Al Duhail.

Strict protocols mean matches will still begin, amid a regime of tests every three-six days and limiting movement within a ‘medical bubble’. A quartet of air-conditioned World Cup 2022 venues will host fixtures; Khalifa International Stadium, Al Janoub Stadium, Education City Stadium and Jassim bin Hamad Stadium.

“Fresh from winning the Saudi Professional League title, we are now back in the AFC Champions League to retain the crown we won last year,” said Hilal supremo Razvan Lucescu, whose troops start with a top-of-the-table clash with Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor in Group B. “We are enthusiastic and there is good confidence all around the team.”

There is excitement amid the Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club-ranks with Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo fit enough to make his competitive debut versus Iran’s Shahr Khodro, after last month’s switch from Hilal. This feeling is, though, tempered by their lack of action since the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League was halted in March and 2020/21’s kick-off rescheduled until October.

“We are aware that Al Hilal and Pakhtakor played a number of matches during the suspension period, which contributed to increasing their readiness rate,” said coach Gerard Zaragoza before this meeting of sides without points. “This matter we consider, and we are well aware of what we must achieve.”

Elsewhere on Monday, Wahda versus Persian Gulf Pro League runners-up Esteghlal is cancelled in Group A. Victory for depleted Al Ahli Jeddah versus Iraq’s Al Shorta will see them become the first outfit into the knockouts.

The East Zone has been pushed back to November 15-December 13 from a proposed mid-October resumption. A one-legged final, rather than the usual two-legged affair, will be played in the west on December 19.

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