Neymar and a star-studded Al-Hilal have been held to a Champions League draw by Asian minnows – and it could have been much worse.
The anticipation in Riyadh was palpable ahead of the AFC Champions League bow of Neymar, Ruben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic and the rest of Al-Hilal’s stacked team following a summer of eye-watering spending that saw the Saudi giants not only break the Pro League transfer record but also become the summer’s second-biggest spenders in the world behind Chelsea.
Al-Hilal had splashed €353 million on new signings over the summer, €90m of which had gone towards making Neymar the most expensive purchase in the history of Saudi football, not to mention his astronomical wages – the Brazilian is the third-best-paid player in the world.
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Unsurprisingly, then, the Asian Champions League’s record champions went into their inaugural match of the new campaign as the heavy favourites seeing as though they were squaring up with Navbahor Namangan.
From #UCL to #ACL 💪#HILvNAV pic.twitter.com/Vkcaoi4y6a
— #ACL (@TheAFCCL) September 18, 2023
Navbahor had finished the bygone campaign of the Uzbek Super League as runners-up to perennial champions Pakhtakor from Tashkent. It was the club’s greatest-ever achievement in domestic league play so for them to line up against the likes of Neymar was certainly an occasion to cherish.
But they weren’t there to just make up the numbers in the Champions League. Quite to the contrary, though Al-Hilal inevitably controlled the game, it was Navbahor who took a shock lead through Toma Tabatadze in the 52nd minute.
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And the Uzbek minnows almost held on. Almost. A 100th-minute strike from defender Ali Al-Bulaihi salvaged a point for Jorge Jesus’ embarrassed Saudi giants.
Al-Hilal’s next game in the ACL will be against Iranian side Nassaji, while Indian Super League regular season champions Mumbai City – a member of City Football Group – await in the third group match.
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