Defending AFC champions forced to withdraw due to coronavirus infections

Defending champions Al-Hilal have been forced to withdraw from the Asian Champions League after being unable to field a full team due to a coronavirus outbreak.

The Saudi Arabian team has been hit with a reported 31 infections of players and officials during the group stage of Asia’s premier club competition.

The club could only name nine starting players and two substitute goalkeepers for the final Group B game against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai of the United Arab Emirates.

Tournament rules state teams unable to field 13 players will forfeit all games, meaning that Al-Hilal, which had already clinched a place in the knockout stages due to previous results, will be unable to defend its title.

“All matches played by Al Hilal, who named only 11 players, are considered null and void according to Article 6 of the AFC Champions League regulations,” the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said in a statement.

“Therefore Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai have progressed to the Round of 16 from Group B.”

Al-Hilal requested the game be postponed to allow players to recover.

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“We only have 11 players before the match, including three goalkeepers,” Al-Hilal coach Roman Lazvan said.

“In Europe, there are clear instructions to cancel or postpone matches in such circumstances.”

The request was denied.

The AFC said “a postponement would have a huge negative impact on the current match schedule of the AFC Champions League (West) and so no exception was granted.”

The reigning champions last played on September 18 — a 0-0 draw with Pakhtakor — who were unaffected by the outbreak.

The Uzbek team played out a 1-0 win over Iran’s Shahr Khodro on Wednesday to top the group.

Al-Hilal, the 16-time winners of the Saudi Professional League, are the most successful team in the history of the Asian Champions League, having won the title a record-equalling three times, as well as being runner-up on four occasions.

In 2014 Western Sydney Wanderers beat Al-Hilal in the final.

The competition was postponed in March, but the western half of the continent restarted play this month.

However, a new outbreak meant Al-Wahda of the United Arab Emirates was unable to travel to Qatar, the regional hub and host of the west zone’s games.

The eastern zone, featuring A-League champions Sydney FC, as well as Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory, restarts on November 15.

The final between the winners of the two zones is scheduled to take place on December 19.

AAP/ABC