Al Sadd SC had 19 wins and three draws for a total of 60 points in the 2020-21 Qatar Stars League. They scored an incredible 77 goals and conceded just to go unbeaten in the league and win a sixth title under Xavi Hernandez. Both numbers and form heading into the AFC Champions League had them among the hot favourites for the title this season.
But the only statistic that stands out after the first two matchdays of the 2021 ACL is the measly one point Al Sadd have salvaged so far. The club that were tipped to challenge for the top honour in Asia now find themselves bottom of their group and in desperate need of a reversal to make the knockouts.
Xavi knew his team needed a bright start after they were pooled with last season's semifinalists Al Nassr FC of Saudi Arabia, Iran's Foolad Khuzestan and debutants from Jordan in Al Wehdat SC in Group D. But the QSL champions looked far from convincing in their opening match against Foolad -- who were playing in the tournament for the first time since 2015.
Coached by former Iran and Osasuna midfielder Javad Nekounam, Foolad qualified by demolishing Al Ain FC 4-0 in the playoff round and proved to be a handful for Xavi's men. The Iranians had the best of chances in the first 45 minutes and deservedly took the lead through Brazilian striker Chimba in the 61st minute.
Foolad could have bagged all three points if it wasn't for an 89th-minute equaliser from centre-back Boualem Khoukhi who was thrown upfront in a desperate move by Xavi during the final minutes. The Barcelona legend spoke of the need for improvements after a disappointing 1-1 draw, but it was always going to be a tall order against hosts Al Nassr.
Once again, Al Sadd fell behind when 2020 ACL top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah scored with a controversial penalty in the first half. Santi Cazorla reminded everyone of the quality the Al Sadd squad possesses with astunning equaliser from a freekick, but the respite was temporary as Al Nassr ran out 3-1 winners to keep the Qataris rooted to the bottom.
So, what has gone wrong for Xavi and Al Sadd in Asia after an "Invincible" season back home? The defence that helped the Wolves finish 13 points ahead of second-placed Al Duhail SC in Qatar has not shown up at Riyadh. The backline has looked shaky and made uncharacteristic errors that cost them dearly in the first two games.
"We were good in the first 25 minutes in the second half, and we scored the equaliser and we were close to scoring the second, but there were some mistakes in defence because of which we conceded," Xavi admitted after the loss. "Football is about mistakes, and in a strong match like this, we must not make these mistakes, which cost us the match."
Al Sadd have also missed 2019 AFC Footballer of the Year Akram Afif up front after the winger was left out of the squad due to a thigh muscle injury. Afif was instrumental during the limited time he was on the field for Xavi this season where he scored five times and had eight assists in just 11 QSL appearances.
Algerian striker Baghdad Bounedjah, who led the QSL with 21 goals, has yet to make an impact on the 2021 ACL. Against Al Nassr for instance, Xavi's men enjoyed 61% of the possession, but only had two shots on target.
With their next two fixtures coming against an inexperienced Al Wehdat who are making their debut in ACL, Al Sadd have the perfect opportunity to bounce back and begin their season in earnest on Matchday 3. But as their head coach rightly pointed out, they will have plenty of work to do over the next four matches to turn their fortunes around.