FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan selects the five players who impressed the most in the first leg of the AFC Champions League 2019 Round of 16 West Zone ties.
After the summer break, the West Zone knockout round action got underway this week as teams looked to take a step closer to the last eight.
Al Ittihad were the first team to record a win in the Round of 16 as they came from behind to beat Zob Ahan 2-1 on Monday, which was followed by a 1-1 draw between Al Nassr and Al Wahda.
On Tuesday, Xavi’s managerial debut with Al Sadd ended in a 1-1 draw with Al Duhail in an all-Qatar clash, while Al Hilal claimed an emphatic 4-2 triumph over fellow Saudi Arabian giants Al Ahli.
Here, FOX Sports Asia takes a closer look at the five players who shone the brightest in the West in the first leg of Round of 16 action in AFC Champions League 2019.
1) CARLOS VILLANUEVA (AL ITTIHAD)
Al Ittihad produced an impressive fightback to claim a first-leg win over Zob Ahan and there were several impressive performers, including new signing Luis Jimenez and rampaging left-back Hamdan Al-Shamrani.
Al Ittihad come from behind to edge Zobahan in the Round of 16 first leg
But the one man that Al Ittihad can really thank for the victory was experienced playmaker Carlos Villanueva, who has been at the club since 2016.
Deployed as a classic No. 10 behind Jimenez and Romarinho, Villanueva wreaked havoc on the Zob Ahan defence as his creativity in and around the area shone through.
2) GHASEM HADADIFAR (ZOB AHAN)
Although Zob Ahan ultimately ended on the losing side, it was not for lack of trying on the part of Ghasem Hadadifar.
Bend it like Beckham – Hadadifar scores brilliant 25-yard free-kick
The talismanic captain opened the scoring with a sublime 25-yard freekick into the top corner and regularly dropped deep to receive possession in a bid to quickly get his side on the front foot.
Having never played outside of Iran, Hadadifar may not share the same profile as his more-illustrious peers like Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei but has still carved out a career he can be proud of, which included representing Team Melli at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
3) MOHAMMED AL-SHAMSI (AL WAHDA)
Al Wahda have the slight advantage of an away goal in their tie with Al Nassr after Monday’s 1-1 draw at the King Fahd International Stadium but, while Leonardo might have been the one to net the potentially-decisive effort, it was Mohammed Al-Shamsi who preserved the draw.
Al Nassr and Al Wahda leave tie open after draw in Round of 16 first leg
Al-Shamsi could do little to prevent Abderrazak Hamdallah from heading Al Nassr ahead but promptly put it behind him, and went on to produce a commanding display for the rest of the match that saw him come off his line often to snuff out threats with his clean handling.
Still only 22, the Al Wahda custodian was a reserve option in the United Arab Emirates side that reached the semi-finals of AFC Asian Cup 2019, but could soon start rivalling Khalid Eisa for the No. 1 jersey if he maintains this level of performance.
4) EDMILSON JUNIOR (AL DUHAIL)
Xavi’s first game as a coach got off to a good start when Akram Afif fired Al Sadd ahead on Tuesday, but they were pegged back just before halftime by a clinical strike by Youssef Msakni.
Thereafter, it was Al Duhail who looked the more dangerous of the two sides in the final third and Edmilson Junior constantly looked the likeliest source of a breakthrough.
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Offering plenty of energy down the right, the Belgian linked up well with his team-mates, always looked to get in behind the opposition defence and whipped in several dangerous deliveries that could have led to the winner.
5) BAFETIMBI GOMIS (AL HILAL)
Fireworks were expected of Tuesday’s battle of the Saudi Arabian giants and it certainly did not disappoint, although it was Al Hilal who ultimately emerged victorious in a six-goal thriller as Bafetimbi Gomis proved to be in unstoppable form.
Gomis’ hat-trick gives Al Hilal win over Al Ahli in Round of 16 first leg
On his 34th birthday, the former Lyon and Swansea star twice equalised for his side after Al Ahli had went ahead and then fired them in front for the first time in the 65th minute with an opportunistic strike.
Having netted seven goals in the campaign already, Gomis is now just two behind leading scorer Leonardo and looks certain to play a major role in how far Al Hilal go.