Al Hilal head coach Razvan Lucescu challenged his players to maintain their intensity ahead of their Matchday Five encounter against Shahr Khodro FC who sit bottom of the 2020 AFC Champions League Group B.
Iran’s Shahr Khodro have been eliminated early on in their maiden appearance in the competition after suffering four consecutive defeats, while Al Hilal, the reigning continental champions, are just a win away from joining domestic rivals Al Ahli and Al Nassr in the round of 16.
Al Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu’s biggest challenge will be selection, although AFC have approved the registration of two goalkeepers in response to a crisis that has seen the squad severely trimmed due to several players testing positive for Covid-19. Abdullah al-Bishi and Ahmad al-Jubaya have come in to replace Mohamed al-Wakid and Nawaf al-Ghamdi.
“We have to keep going with the same intensity, we have a huge shot at qualification, but the job is not done yet, and we also want to top our group,” said Lucescu.
“The changes we have made to our line-up have forced us to play in a way different from the one we are used to. We like to control possession and attack to create as many chances, but in the last game we were forced to sit back and hit on the break when we got the ball.
“The current predicament we are facing will not allow us to rest the players that have given a great deal of effort in the past two games, whoever is up for the challenge ahead will play.”
While Al Hilal have it all to play for today, their opponents are eyeing more long-term benefits as they hope their first experience of continental football will help them when they return home at the end of the group stage.
“Luck was not on our side in the previous two games. We are now focusing on working for the future, and we must do our best against Al Hilal. We have a lot of young players, and this was our first ever AFC Champions League campaign so we are gaining a lot of experience which will help us in the Iran Pro League next season,” said Shahr Khodro assistant coach Mohamed Navazi.
Shabab Al Ahli, Pakhtakor in a must-win clash
In the second Group B match of the day, Shabab Al Ahli and Pakhtakor have it all to play for with the two sides in direct competition for a Round-of-16 ticket.
The two sides are separated by only one point — Pakhtakor sit second with seven points after four games while Shabab Al Ahli’s late resurgence took their tally to six points from four matches.
Shabab Al Ahli lost to Pakhtakor 2-1 in their opening game of the campaign but have since undergone a managerial change with Spaniard Gerard Zaragoza replacing Argentine Rodolfo Arruabarrena.
“We will go into this game as if it were a final because a loss here will mean elimination, while a win could vastly improve our chances of progression,” said Zaragoza.
“Each game has its own circumstances. Yes, I was not present in the first two group stage games, but I know the weather was bad in the first game against Pakhtakor, and Al Hilal’s players’ brilliance decided the second game. Pakhtakor are a good team and are difficult to face, they have a good squad and a good manager.”
Pakhtakor head coach Shota Arveladze is aware his team face a different Shabab Al Ahli side to the one they defeated on the opening matchday of the competition seven months ago.
“This game will be vital, but in a larger context the final two matches are always important. I will work on moulding the physical and tactical aspects of my team,” said Arveladze.
“We played against Shabab Al Ahli in the first match of the group and it was raining in Uzbekistan. The first half saw some good performances but there was a downpour in the second half, so performances were affected.
“Shabab Al Ahli have changed a lot since our last match – some players have left and others have come in such as Eduardo, who has not played much in the two previous games and was in a different position than what we saw with Al Hilal. I believe it will be an exciting match though absolutely crucial for us.”
Group A at Khalifa International Stadium
9pm: Esteghlal (IRN) vs Al Shorta (IRQ)
Group B at Al Janoub Stadium
6pm: Shahr Khodro (IRN) vs Al Hilal (KSA)
9pm: Shabab Al Ahli (UAE) vs Pakhtakor (UZB)
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