Why everyone should sit up and take note of ACL contenders Al Duhail

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan believes Qatari powerhouses Al Duhail have to be regarded as one of the favourites for the AFC Champions League this season.

There is a very good chance you might not have heard of Al Duhail before the start of 2018, or even until now for that matter.

Simply because, before last April, they did not exist.

But, having been formed from a merger between five-time Qatar Stars League champions Lekhwiya and El Jaish, no slouches themselves as they finished the 2016-17 campaign in fourth position, the newest West Asian superpowers were born.

In their first season of existence, Al Duhail stormed to the league title as they went through the entire 22-game campaign unbeaten, finishing 11 points ahead of second-placed Al Sadd and a further six ahead of Al Rayyan, with the latter two combining for 21 championships in the history of Qatari football.

This year, in their AFC Champions League debut, the Red Knights have won all eight of their games thus far and are closing in on Ulsan Hyundai’s record of nine consecutive victories in their title-winning campaign in 2012.

However, it is not just the results but they manner in which they have achieved them that is reason why everyone should sit up and take notice of Djamel Belmadi’s charges and their burgeoning reputation as genuine contenders in the ACL.

So, just what has been the secret to their success?

For starters, excluding a spell with Qatar from 2013 to 2015, Belmadi has been at the club – in its Lekhwiya days – and has heaps of experience as a player with Manchester City, Southampton and Marseille.

His familiarity with how the club his run and the players under his charge has resulted in an extremely efficient and well-drilled Al Duhail outfit, with every man out on the field or sitting on the bench knowing the exact role they have to play.

Then, there is also the fact that Belmadi has undoubted quality at his disposal.

As the ACL’s joint-top scorer so far this season with nine goals, Youssef El-Arabi is a clear headline act and is capably supported by the effervescent Nam Tae-hee, who was curiously overlooked for Korea Republic’s 2018 FIFA World Cup squad despite being in terrific form.

Yet, it is not just the foreigners that are starring for the Doha-based club, with the locals playing equally pivotal roles all across the park.

In particular, Karim Boudiaf is an absolute driving force in the engine room with his tireless and imposing displays, while forward Ismaeel Mohammad may not garner as many headlines as El-Arabi or Nam but is as damaging in attack.

Al Duhail have scored 21 goals and conceded just nine in the ACL this season.

With the likes of Lucas Mendes, Mohammed Musa and Murad Naji – along with goalkeeper Amine Lecomte – holding court at the back, Al Duhail also boast one of Asia’s steadiest defences.

Nonetheless, Belmadi has also shown he has one eye on the future and has not been afraid to blood some of Qatari football’s brightest prospects.

Talented 21-year-old forward Almoez Ali has entrenched himself in his manager’s starting XI, but his fellow up-and-coming prospects like Bassam Al-Rawi, Sultan Al-Brake and Abdulrahman Mostafa have all been given their fair share of exposure to aid in their development.

Will all this add up to the club winning the AFC Champions League in their maiden campaign?

We’ll have to wait at least until the end of August – when the tournament resumes with the quarter-finals – to find out.

Still, if everything goes according to plan, April 2017, when Lekhwiya and El Jaish joined forces, could just go down in history as the birth of one of Asian football’s great sides for many years to come.