SEOUL, South Korea — Xavi Hernandez was touted as a future coach of Barcelona even before leading Al-Sadd to the Qatar league title undefeated earlier this month. His chances will only improve if he can add the Asian Champions League title to his accomplishments this year.
The group stage of the continental competition kicks off on Wednesday in the western zone which includes Al-Sadd. The side plays Iranian side Foolad in its opening Group D match.
Al-Sadd was dominant this year under the 41-year-old Xavi, who won the World Cup with Spain in 2010. Al-Sadd finished first in Qatar’s 12-team league, winning 19 out of 22 games and scoring 77 goals while conceding just 14.
“The toughest tournament awaits us,” the former star midfielder said. “We are in an excellent period and fully ready to compete.”
Xavi took over Al-Sadd in May 2019 but even with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla in strong form, the 2021 tournament will be a bigger challenge than usual.
The number of teams has been expanded from 32 to 40 which means that only the 10 group winners and six best runners-up will progress to the knockout stage.
In order to reduce travel in the global pandemic, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided in March that each group will be staged in one city with each team playing six games in just 15 days.
Al-Sadd will play all its games in Riyadh, home of Al-Nassr.
Elsewhere, 2019 champion Al-Hilal is hosting Group A in Riyadh with two teams from Central Asia — AGMK of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol — making their first appearances.
The eastern zone, which features teams from Japan, South Korea, China and Australia, is scheduled to start in June, although the hosting venues have not been decided.