Qatar's two Asian Champions League clubs, Lekhwiya and El Jaish, have earned a boost of reaching the knockout stages After an early scare following a defeat and two draws, Lekhwiya bounced back in style on Tuesday, beating Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia 4-0.
The two sides are still locked on five points after four games, whilst Iran's Zob Ahan remain the surprise group leaders. However, the advantage lies with Lekhwiya, fourth in the Qatari Stars League, who have a double-header to come against Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan, the team ranked bottom of the group.
Given Lekhwiya languish 20 points off Al-Rayyan who are all-but secured of the league championship this season, the Asian Champions League takes on more focus for Djamal Belmadi's side. As the football landscape in Qatar continues to mature, results in the Asian Champions League gain increasing importance.
But the four league titles since 2011 haven't translated into continental dominance with only two quarter-final places in recent years. In both instances, Lekhwiya were embarrassed – the defeat to Saudi giants Al-Hilal last year a particular blow given the relative optimism around the team's chances of reaching the final four.
Having gone three games without a win, a response at home to Al-Nassr was crucial. Djamal Belmadi's side thoroughly dominated and played the sort of slick, attacking football which has driven the club to recent domestic success. Nam Tae-hee, Alain Dioko, Chico Flores and Mohammed Muntari got on the scoresheet in the win – but Lekhwiya were unfortunate not to add to their lead.
The 40-year-old Algerian coach Belmadi – who played for Manchester City, PSG and Southampton in his playing career - is in his second spell at the club and described Tuesday's home tie as a 'must-win' encounter if the club is to extend their stay in the competition. Belmadi has been in charge since 2015 following the departure of Michael Laudrup and the Algerian's exit from the Qatari national team.
The Doha-based side return to league action on Sunday with a home clash against Al-Ahli. Lekhwiya are fourth on 41 points, three points off third-placed El Jaish who occupy the final Champions League place and have been flying the Qatari flag in the tournament this season.
Jubilant El Jaish
Coached by former French midfielder Sabri Lamouchi, El Jaish are in pole position to qualify in the next round of games despite only managing a draw in Uzbekistan against Nassaf. But Lamouchi's side have been impressive in the group stages, the club's second foray into the Champions League after a run to the Last 16 in 2013.
What is perhaps more impressive is how quickly the team have dispatched of some established opposition, such as, Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates. El Jaish need another point to be safe of qualification and have two games against Al-Ahli of Saudi Arabia who are cut adrift at the bottom of the section.
“After Al Rayyan sealed the league title, our concentration now is on the AFC Champions League. We are in a good position in the competition, but that doesn’t mean we have secured our qualification,” Lamouchi told reporters.
El Jaish, who won the Qatari title in 2011, have been able to call on the attacking services of key two-man strike partnership. Morocco's Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 18 goals in 21 league games, has resurrected his national team ambitions, while Brazilian forward Romarinho is already into double figures. There is more depth with Uzbek forward Sardour Rashidov who received special praise from Lamouchi before the Nassaf game,
Lamouchi's side can make sure of continental football for next season in the coming weeks. El Jaish are clinging on to third-place after a slump in form, but have two games left to make a Champions League spot safe, including a final day showdown with second-placed Al-Sadd.
But Lamouchi will have the disadvantage of continuing this season's Champions League campaignSHOW MORE