Riyadh (AFP) – Asian champions Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia played Iran’s Shahr Khodro on Sunday despite 15 of their players testing positive for the novel coronavirus, after Asia’s football body refused to postpone the game.
The Saudi team said Saturday it had “asked the Asian Football Confederation to postpone” the match in Qatar’s Al Janoub stadium after tests showed that ten players had “been infected with Covid-19”, adding to five players who had already tested positive.
According to AFC rules, Al Hilal were able to play the match as 14 of their players were available, including two goalkeepers.
Since September 13, Al Hilal had announced five cases of the disease among their players, including captain Salman al-Faraj, who left quarantine on Sunday after testing negative for the disease for a second time.
Six members of the technical, medical and administrative staff also tested positive for the disease, the club said Sunday.
The Saudi team, mostly made up of reserves, held Shahr Khodro to a 0-0 draw to qualify for the knockout stages despite missing French striker Bafetimbi Gomis and Italian midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, who had both tested positive for the Covid-19 illness.
Al Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu had called up players from the Saudi champions’ youth team as substitutes.
Al Hilal had scored a 2-0 win over their Iranian rivals when the teams met before the pandemic-enforced seven-month break but struggled to make any headway in the reverse fixture at the Al Janoub Stadium.
Shahr Khodro, who have not won a single match and are also yet to score a goal in Group B, grabbed their first point with the draw while Al Hilal stayed top of the table with 11 points from five matches.
Mansour al-Bishi missed a sitter for Al Hilal, putting the ball over the net off a pass from Hatan Bahebri and the latter himself saw his shot deflected away by Shahr Khodro goalkeeper Mohamed Kia later in the game.
The Al Hilal defence survived a major scare but Shahr Khodro failed to open their Champions League account with Farshad Faraji heading over the post following a corner.
– ‘Respect fair competition’ –
Under its coronavirus rules, the AFC is able to reschedule matches in exceptional circumstances.
The club’s manager Saud Kariri said in a video posted on social media that the outbreak within the team had started at a September 7 party to celebrate their victory in the Saudi league.
“The AFC isn’t obliged to respect the title holder, but should respect fair competition and guarantee equal opportunities for those taking part in the championship,” he said.
The second match in Group B also ended in a goalless draw between Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor and UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli.
Pakhtakor and Shabab Al Ahli have one match remaining and are still in contention to become the second team to qualify for the last 16 after Al Hilal.
The Group A match between Iraq’s Al Shorta and Iran’s Esteghlal finished 1-1.
Mazin Fayyadh put Al Shorta ahead in the 26th minute on an assist by Ali Faiz Atiyah, while Amir Motahari restored parity for the Iranians in the 68th.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli have already qualified for the last 16 from the group while Al Shorta and Esteghlal are both in contention for second place.
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