Al Ahli in tough Asian Champions League draw

Dubai-based Arabian Gulf League club in same group as Al Sadd, Al Hilal and Sepahan on return to Asian continental championship, reports John McAuley.

Cosmin Olaroiu will oversee Al Ahli's difficult return to the Asian Champions League. Satish Kumar / The National
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Al Ahli, the current leaders of the Arabian Gulf League, have been dealt a difficult draw on their return to the Asian Champions League.

The Dubai club, who last appeared in the continental competition in 2010, were placed in Group D at Tuesday’s draw in Kuala Lumpur, where they will play Al Sadd, Al Hilal and Sepahan.

Al Sadd, the reigning Qatari champions, have lost only once in 11 league matches this season to sit at the top of their division, while they lifted the Champions League crown as recently as 2011.

Ahli also face a daunting trip to Hilal, the two-time Asian champions, who are second in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League. Last season, Hilal were drawn against UAE opposition, too, and emerged from two fixtures with Al Ain with a victory and a defeat.

Sepahan, the Iranian club who at present are sixth in their domestic league, complete Group D. They faced Al Nasr in last year’s tournament, registering two wins, including a convincing 3-0 triumph in Dubai.

As taxing as Ahli’s pool appears, it may not prove as formidable as the one that awaits Al Jazira. The Abu Dhabi side, who last season managed only one victory from six Champions League matches, will play Esteghlal, Al Rayyan and Saudi’s Al Shabab in Group A.

Esteghlal are the current Iranian champions, who twice defeated Al Ain earlier this year to top their pool. Two-time Asian champions, they were defeated by FC Seoul in October’s semi-finals.

Shabab, meanwhile, reached the last eight having topped a group involving Jazira, only to exit the competition on the away-goal rule. The Saudi giants lifted the trophy in 1992 and 1999, and at the moment are third in their domestic league.

Qatar’s Rayyan, who last season finished bottom of Al Ain’s group, make up Group A.

Al Ain, the only UAE side to have won the trophy, were perhaps granted the easiest path to the knock-out stages, drawn in Group B alongside Al Ittihad, Tractorsazi Tabriz and the winners of the Western play-off series two.

Ittihad, three-time finalists, are one of the most successful clubs in the region, however they are struggling this season and languish eighth in the Saudi Pro League.

Tractor represent a different proposition, though, as they share the lead in the Iranian top flight after 17 matches. Also, they will be keen to make amends for last season’s disappointing Asian campaign, when they lost four of six matches to finish bottom of their group.

The UAE’s last representative is Baniyas, who need to negotiate their way past two preliminary rounds to reach the group stage. The capital club will entertain either Oman’s Al Suwaiq or Kuwait’s Qadsia on February 2 before meeting in the second qualifying stage the winners of the clash between Qatar’s El Jaish and Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi.

Should they progress, Baniyas will then take their place in Group B with Saudi champions Al Fateh, Iran’s Foolas Khuzestan and Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.