RIYADH: The message on the advertising hording is clear: “Bigger Than Ever.”
And this year’s AFC Champions League is just that, the biggest tournament ever – with an extra eight teams added, taking the total competing in the group stage to 40.
This trend of expansion has been seen across various continental and global competitions over the last few years, with varying degrees of success.
The AFC Asian Cup and European Championships expanded from 16 teams to 24. The FIFA World Cup will see an increase from 32 teams to 48 for the 2026 tournament in the US, Canada, and Mexico, while the FIFA Women’s World Cup will expand from 24 teams to 32 for the 2023 edition in Australia and New Zealand.
Then, of course, there is the expanded UEFA Champions League, announced recently to placate the wantaway so-called Dirty Dozen.
Bigger is the mantra of football executives the world over, but bigger does not always equal better.
However, on the early evidence from this year’s AFC Champions League, the AFC appear to have struck gold with their new format.
One of the common arguments against expansion of tournaments is the extra teams added will dilute the quality, bringing with it mismatched clashes and blowout score lines.
But in the revamped 2021 AFC Champions League, the addition of the extra teams has rejuvenated what was fast becoming a tired format.
All anyone within Asian football circles is talking about right now is the giant-killing Tajik champions, FC Istiklol.
As each match of the group stage went on, their performances and their achievements became more remarkable, and they have delivered new life and interest right across the continent.
This writer has a weekly spot on a national football radio show in Australia, and for the last three weeks the main topic of conversation has been Istiklol. The nine-time Tajik champions are making waves and putting the AFC Champions League front and center where it would not normally be.
Australians have a love-hate relationship with the AFC Champions League at the best of times, and similar to the UAE are sleep walking to demotion to the second-tier AFC Cup after years of poor performance by A-League clubs on the continent.
Who would have thought Istiklol, and the quality of the Dzhalilov cousins, would be such a hot topic of conversation? But here we are, and we would not be here without the expanded format.
What the expanded format has done, for the most part anyway, is make every game count. With only the group winners now guaranteed of progression to the knockout rounds, there is a premium placed on every match and every point. Indeed, on every goal too.
In previous years, when the top two would progress, the result was often known with a few games to spare which made for a rather dull conclusion to the group stage. Not anymore.
Determining who finished top came down to the final game in three of the five groups in the AFC West zone, while in the other two there was still plenty to play for as teams, especially Al-Wahda, needed wins to secure as many points as possible to go through as one of the three best second-placed teams.
What it meant was big-name casualties, and they do not come much bigger than Qatari duo Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail.
Al-Sadd, coached by former Barcelona legend Xavi, would normally have advanced comfortably with three wins and 10 points, but instead were the first big name to fall victim to the new format that demands more.
For Al-Sadd, a team with serious aspirations of winning the whole tournament and with the talent to do so, getting knocked out in the group stage is a significant blow and will surely lead to Xavi coming under pressure to keep his job having failed again in their ultimate quest to return to the summit of Asian football.
Al-Duhail, champions in Qatar seven times in the last decade, were left to rue a missed penalty from Michael Olunga – who otherwise was the standout performer of the group stage with an impressive nine goals in six games – as they could only manage a draw against Al-Ahli when a win was needed to advance.
Their failure to advance gave Al-Hilal a lifeline, with the 2019 champions scraping through by the skin of their teeth after losing their final group stage encounter with Shabab Al-Ahli, which meant they advanced ahead of Al-Sadd on the third tiebreaker – goals scored.
The fact the fate of three teams came down to the very last seconds of the final matches added an enormous amount of tension and drama when ordinarily there would have been none.
That alone is a big tick for the new format.
While we wait to see what happens when the East Zone group stage takes place in June and July, we can only hope it is as fun and drama filled as the last two weeks.