Ali Al-Bulaihi came to the rescue with a dramatic equalizer deep into stoppage time, sparing Al-Hilal’s blushes in a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in the Asian Champions League clash held in Riyadh on Monday.
The Saudi Pro League side, featuring the high-profile debutant Neymar, saw themselves trailing after Toma Tabatadze found the back of the net in the 52nd minute of this Group D encounter.
Neymar, among the headline arrivals in Saudi Arabia over the summer, was included in the starting line-up for the first time since his 90 million euro move from Paris St Germain but endured a frustrating evening.
The Brazilian looked like he would end up on the losing side until Al-Bulaihi’s header, which came during more than 14 minutes of injury time, finally put an end to Navbahor’s determined resistance against its expensively assembled opponents.
Only the winners of the 10 groups in the 40-team competition are guaranteed to advance to last 16 and Al-Hilal sit behind debutant Nassaji Mazandaran in the early standings.
The Iranians top the group after securing a 2-0 win over India’s Mumbai City in Pune through a goal in each half from Ehsan Hosseini and Mohammad Reza Azadi.
There were no such problems for Saudi Pro League champion Al-Ittihad, which cruised to a 3-0 win in Group C over AGMK from Uzbekistan despite coach Nuno Espirito Santo not including ex-Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema in his squad.
Haroune Camara gave the former champion the perfect start in Jeddah in the 11th minute when he slammed home after goalkeeper Botirali Ergashev’s save and Romarinho doubled the lead four minutes later with a cool close-range finish.
The Brazilian hit the third three minutes before the interval from the penalty spot after Abderazzak Hamdallah had been fouled in the area by Dilshodbek Akhmadaliev.
Al-Ittihad leads the table after Air Force Club shared a 2-2 draw with Sepahan from Iran, with 19-year-old Ali Jassim scoring twice for the Iraqi side in Erbil.
Meanwhile, Nasaf from Uzbekistan secured a late 1-0 win over Jordan’s Al-Faisaly to top Group B ahead of Qatar’s Al Sadd and Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates, who shared a 0-0 draw.