(Reuters) - Four clubs will take to Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium on Wednesday looking to move a step closer to winning the Asian Champions League, a competition beset by problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iran’s Persepolis take on Pakhtakor from Uzbekistan while Saudi Arabian duo Al Ahli and Al Nassr clash with places in the semi-finals of Asia’s premier club competition at stake.
The quartet are the last teams standing in the western half of the draw, which the Asian Football Confederation has had to reschedule and relocate due to the pandemic.
Ties that would normally have been played on a home-and-away basis have been held in a centralised format in the Qatari capital and not everything has gone smoothly.
Al Hilal, the defending champions from Saudi Arabia, were forced to withdraw after a series of positive COVID-19 tests ravaged their squad.
Al Wahda from the United Arab Emirates had pulled out ahead of their departure for Doha for similar reasons.
In the eastern half of the draw, the remaining group games involving clubs from Japan, South Korea, China and Australia were scheduled for next month but have been moved to November. A venue has yet to be officially announced.
The difficulties faced by clubs in the West Zone have not gone unnoticed.
“Clubs here still want to win the trophy, but it comes with a huge burden in this situation,” a Korean club official told Reuters.
“After what we heard on the news about Al Hilal and the positive COVID tests we were worried.
“Above all, our first priority is to the players and we must be sure they are safe.”
But with South Korea’s domestic schedule due to be completed by early November, clubs there face few of the issues likely to be encountered by other teams in the East Zone.
Rescheduled domestic campaigns, border closures and COVID-19 protocols have put teams in a difficult situation.
Japanese clubs are likely to come under pressure from broadcasters DAZN, who recently extended their lucrative deal with the J.League until 2028, not to further compromise their domestic season after a four-month delay.
That delay has already resulted in top flight clubs’ involvement in the Emperor’s Cup being curtailed and the addition of continental commitments will weigh heavily on the country’s participants in the competition.
Yokohama F Marinos, FC Tokyo and Vissel Kobe would be forced to reschedule a minimum of three domestic matches, and potentially as many as six should they reach the ACL final.
Scheduling threatens to be an issue for China’s representatives, too, with the remaining rounds of the Chinese FA Cup slated to be played from Nov. 26 to Dec. 19, leaving Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan to decide which competition takes priority.
Obstacles of a different kind exist in Australia, where tight restrictions on movement in and out of the country will need to be overcome, as will the knock-on financial difficulties faced by A-League clubs.
Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory are representing Australia in the competition.
Perth CEO Tony Pignata says logistics will be a major challenge.
“The issue for us ... is it’s very hard to get out of the country, let alone coming back with the limited number of international passengers allowed back,” he said recently.
“It’s going to come to a point: How do we do this from a logistics point of view? We’ve got to come back from an overseas destination, we’ve got to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine at our cost. We have 30 people, it gets very expensive.”
The top team from the East Zone meet their counterparts from the West in the ACL final on Dec. 19.
Editing by Peter Rutherford
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