- AFC Champions League group campaign concluded in West Zone
- Three of four Iranian teams progressed to the knockout stage
- Debutants Istiklol made history by sealing maiden progression
The 2021 AFC Champions League group campaign in the West Zone was completed on Friday with eight teams progressing to the Round of 16. Teams from the East Zone will kick off their campaign in June, competing for the remaining eight qualifying slots.
Three of the four Iranian sides involved progressed, with last year's runners-up Persepolis, Esteghlal and Tractor advancing, leaving Foolad as the only eliminated Iran Pro League team. Joining the trio in the knockout phase will be Riyadh-based duo Al Hilal and Al Nassr while Al Wahda and Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates both made it through. Tournament debutants Istiklol, meanwhile, took their group campaign by storm and progressed as group winners.
Group A: *Istiklol, *Al Hilal, Shabab Al Ahli, AGMK
Group B: *Sharjah, *Tractor, Pakhtakor, Al Quwa Al Jawiya
Group C: *Esteghlal, Al Duhall, Al Ahli, Al Shorta
Group D: *Al Nassr, Al Sadd, Al Wehdat, Foolad
Group E: *Persepolis, *Al Wahda, Goa, Al Rayyan
*Teams qualified for Round of 16
This year's campaign was expanded from 32 to 40 sides for the first time with the groups extended from eight to ten. As a result, only group winners could seal qualification, alongside three of the best second-placed finishers, which made competition fiercer.
Indeed, there were no easy groups with the competition going down to the wire. 2019 winners Al Hilal saw their progression only confirmed by the 1-1 draw between Al Ahli and Al Duhail on the final matchday. 2011 champions Al Sadd, coached by former Spanish star Xavi, however, stumbled at the final hurdle, crashing out after losing 2-1 to Al Nassr.
Tractor emerged as the only side to stay undefeated, rounding off their group campaign with a 2-0 win at Sharjah to progress. Al Wahda proved to be one of the most effective sides, though, with their seven goals scored yielding four wins and a draw to advance.
Having twice stormed to the final in 2018 and 2020, Persepolis maintained their rampaging form on the continental scene, finishing as group winners in dominant fashion. The nine-time Iranian champions opened brightly, claiming four straight victories, and despite suffering an unexpected 1-0 loss at Al Wahda, they bounced back to dispatch Al Rayyan 4-2 to seal their passage through.
Istiklol stole the show
Tajikistan champions Istiklol emerged as the biggest surprise package, winning a group that featured Al Hilal, Shabab Al Ahli and AGMK. They managed three victories, including routing hosts and heavyweights Al Hilal 4-1 in a re-match. Earning the most credit has to be striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who scored a brace against Al Hilal before netting the match-winner in the solitary-goal win against Shabab in the penultimate game.
Of all the eight qualified sides, Tractor were the team to have scored the least goals (six). Needless to say, their solid backline proved to be decisive in their successful progression with goalkeeper Mohammadreza Akhbari a standout performer. Nicknamed "Kartal" by Tractor fans, the 28-year-old pulled off a series of stunning saves, helping his side manage two wins and four draws to progress. His goalkeeping heroics in the crucial 2-0 win against Sharjah in the concluding match even earned credits by opposition coach Abdulaziz Al Anbari, who singled him out as the group's 'best player'.
Al Duhail's Kenyan striker Michael Olunga finished as the group campaign's top scorer with nine goals despite his side's failure to progress. The 27-year-old impressed throughout the campaign, including managing a treble in a 4-3 thriller against Esteghlal to put his side on the verge of progression. And he did open the scoring in the decisive game against Al Ahli only to see the rivals equalise late on.
The Asian Football Confederation announced that the Round of 16 and quarter-finals are scheduled to be played as single leg affairs in September. The semi-finals and final will be contested on a home and away basis, with the last four ties scheduled for October and the final in November.