Al Hilal hits out at ‘inflexible’ AFC over Champions League axing

The Saudi club, which had already qualified for the last 16, said it had been determined to defend its title despite 30 players and staff becoming infected by COVID-19.

Al Hilal's departure means Shabab Al Ahli Dubai qualifies for the knockout stage from Group B along with Uzbeki club Pakhtakor, which beat Iran's Shahr Khodro 1-0 in its final round robin match in Doha on Wednesday.   -  AFC Website

Al Hilal have slammed the Asian Football Confederation for its “inflexibility” after the reigning champion was kicked out of Asian Champions League because it was only able to muster 11 players for its final Group B fixture.

The Saudi club, which had already qualified for the last 16, said it had been determined to defend its title despite 30 players and staff becoming infected by COVID-19 in the Qatar hub where Asia's premier club competition resumed last week.

“The board of directors ... sought to work on a number of methods that preserve Al Hilal's right to compete without any disorder to the tournament,” the Riyadh-based club said in a statement.

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“All these requests were rejected by the AFC, in spite of facing compelling circumstances that require greater flexibility from the AFC in assessing the situation.”

Among the suggestions rejected by the AFC, it said, was that it would forfeit its final group match against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai but not its place in the competition, as well as a one-day postponement of Wednesday’s fixture.

It also suggested the knockout stages, scheduled to start on Sunday, should be put back “in light of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the level of the whole tournament, not just Al Hilal”.

The AFC said when announcing Al Hilal's exit that it had already allowed the club to bring in players to replace some of those who had contracted the virus and that a postponement would have a “huge negative impact” on the schedule.

Al Hilal also said the competition rules demanding matchday squads of 13 players contravened FIFA's “basic law of the game” that only 11, including one goalkeeper, were required to contest a football match.

The board said it was considering submitting a protest to the “judicial authorities” to “preserve the club's rights at the official authorities”.

Al Hilal's departure means Shabab Al Ahli Dubai qualifies for the knockout stage from Group B along with Uzbeki club Pakhtakor, which beat Iran's Shahr Khodro 1-0 in its final round robin match in Doha on Wednesday.

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Group A, which was reduced to three teams when Emirati club Al Wahda were kicked out before the resumption after an outbreak of COVID-19 in their squad, also concluded on Wednesday.

Iran's Esteghlal beat Saudi group winner Al Ahli 3-0 at Al Janoub Stadium to secure second spot and a place in the knockout stages ahead of Iraqi champions Al Shorta.

Al Ahli will play Shabab Al Ahli Dubai in the first round-of-16 clash on Sunday at Al Janoub Stadium before Pakhtakor take on Esteghlal in the later match.

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