AFC Champions League 2019 Match Day 4: The 8 Big Questions

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

As AFC Champions League 2019 enters the second half of the group stage, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at the eight big questions ahead of Match Day 4.

Are free-scoring Al Ittihad the biggest threat in the West?

Teams from Saudi Arabia have traditionally enjoyed success in the AFC Champions League and, following a two-year absence, are Al Ittihad the real deal in 2019?

At the halfway mark of the group stage, Al Ittihad are currently the top scorers in the competition with nine goals and joint-top of Group B with six points.

AFC Champions League 2019: Al Ittihad 1-1 Al Rayyan – Fahad Al-Muwallad (44′)

Defensively, there are still question marks over Jose Luis Sierra’s charges but with the likes of Fahad Al-Muwallad and Nasser Al-Shamrani providing the firepower, their cavalier approach could see them emerge as one of the contenders in the West.

Can Xavi continue to inspire Al Sadd following first win?

At the ripe old age of 39, Xavi rolled back the years a fortnight ago with a sublime brace in Al Sadd’s 2-2 draw with Pakhtakor.

The iconic Spanish playmaker has already postponed his retirement on a couple of occasions and for good reason, considering he continues to influence proceedings for the Qatari giants alongside Gabi and Jung Woo-young in the engine room.

Having already led Al Sadd to their first Qatar Stars League title since 2013, could Xavi play on once more with an eye on continental glory?

Are two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande back to their best?

As one of the continent’s biggest clubs with two AFC Champions League crowns to their names in 2013 and 2015, Guangzhou Evergrande have not had much joy on the continental stage in the past three years.

A group-stage exit in 2016 has since been followed by quarter-final and Round of 16 eliminations in the following two seasons, but there has been a marked improvement already this year with Evergrande currently lying top of Group F.

Safawi Rasid or Talisca – Whose AFC Champions League screamer was better?

Their previous successes have always been associated with genuine quality up front and – following in the footsteps of Muriqui, Dario Conca and Ricardo Goulart – Anderson Talisca already looks like he could be a real star of the tournament.

Will Shanghai SIPG and Sydney FC produce another tie of the round?

Considering Shanghai SIPG are widely regarded as genuine title contenders while Sydney FC had only picked up a point from their opening two games, few would have predicted the thrilling 3-3 draw that both sides played out on Match Day 3.

Showing real adventure, the A-League outfit took the lead thrice but were just unable to hold out for the win with Elkeson netting in the 89th minute to earn SIPG a share of the spoils.

AFC Champions League 2019: Sydney FC 3-3 Shanghai SIPG – Elkeson (89′)

Given the Chinese Super League champions have the home advantage this time out, it will be interesting to see if Sydney adopt a similarly-attacking approach but they should take heart from knowing they have sufficient talent to cause their opponents a problem or two.

Can Al Zawraa bounce back after first defeat?

As Iraq’s first representatives in the AFC Champions League proper for a decade, Al Zawraa have shown positive signs but were sent crashing back down to earth a fortnight ago when they lost to Al Nassr 4-1.

On paper, the Gulls certainly do not boast as formidable a squad as some of the other big-spending powerhouses in the West, but they more than make up for it with a host of experienced Iraq internationals including Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, Jalal Hassan and Safaa Hadi.

With the strides the national teams have recently made on the international stage – including reaching the Round of 16 in both January’s AFC Asian Cup and the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup – Al Zawraa reaching the Round of 16 would further emphasise how much of a rising force Iraq are.

Will the real Al Duhail please stand up?

After equalling the tournament record of nine consecutive wins – netting a staggering 23 goals in the process – in 2018 before they fell to a shock quarter-final exit, expectations were high that Al Duhail would once again be a dominant force in the West this year.

Nonetheless, despite boasting newly-crowned Asian Cup top scorer and Most Valuable Player Almoez Ali, and bolstering the team with ex-Juventus and Bayern Munich star Medhi Benatia and Japan international Shoya Nakajima, the Qatari giants are yet to hit top form.

AFC Champions League: Al Duhail 1-0 Esteghlal (Medhi Benatia 56′)

Things looked ominous when they opened their campaign with a 3-0 triumph over Esteghlal but that has since been followed by a 3-1 loss and 2-2 draw against Al Hilal and Al Ain respectively, and Al Duhail would do well to get back on track with three points on Tuesday.

What more do Johor Darul Ta’zim need to go up a level?

Despite picking up just one point from three outings, Johor Darul Ta’zim can take pride in some of their displays so far even if results have not been ideal.

UNLUCKY! Johor Darul Ta’zim hit woodwork THREE times against Gyeongnam FC

If not for the woodwork and some poor finishing, they would have beaten Gyeongnam FC on Match Day 2, while they also created their fair share of chances in narrow 2-1 defeats to Kashima Antlers and Shandong Luneng.

But if they have indeed been playing well and are still not picking up the points, perhaps coach Luciano Figueroa has a real challenge on his hands in figuring out what his charges need to do better for an upturn in fortunes.

Do Buriram United have a plan to stop Cedric Bakambu?

Entering their last ACL game against Beijing Guoan with on the back of an impressive triumph over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Buriram United would have been optimistic in their chances of recording a second consecutive win.

Instead, they were put to the sword by a hat-trick from Cedric Bakambu, whose off-the-ball movement and link-up play with Jonathan Viera proved unstoppable.

AFC Champions League 2019: Buriram United 0-2 Beijing Guoan – Cedric Bakambu (29′)

Coming up against the same opposition at the Workers’ Stadium on Wednesday, Buriram can ill afford a similar showing and the centre-backs Andres Tunez and Pansa Hemviboon must learn from what they had to endure two weeks ago.