2021 AFC Champions League (West) : Six Forwards in Form

With the 2021 AFC Champions League kick off just around the corner, the-AFC.com takes a look at the strikers who are poised to make a difference in the western side of the continent.

With no shortage of attacking talent on display, we shine the spotlight on six frontmen who are on fire in their clubs’ domestic campaigns and could be set to bring those hot streaks onto the Asian stage in this year’s continental club competition.

Bafetimbi Gomis (Al Hilal SFC)

With 11 goals in 14 games earning Al Hilal’s Bafetimbi Gomis the top scorer and MVP awards in their AFC Champions League title-winning campaign back in 2019, the French striker could barely have wished for a better start to life in Asian football as he proved to be one of the most astute signings in the competition’s history.

The following year he helped Al Hilal regain the Saudi Pro League title from city rivals Al Nassr, and finished second in the scoring charts. There was, however, disappointment on the continent because, after Gomis netted three times in three games, his side were forced to withdraw due to a COVID-19 outbreak within their squad which left them unable to defend their title.

The former Olympique Lyonnais forward goes into the 2020-21 AFC Champions League atop the domestic scoring charts and looking to make up for the misfortune of last year. A threat in the air and on the ground, and renowned for his ‘Lion’ celebration, the 35-year-old will be aiming to display his predatory instincts when Group A gets underway in Riyadh on Thursday.

Mohammad Abbaszadeh (Tractor FC)

Mohammad Abbaszadeh has spent his entire career moving back and forth between the Islamic Republic of Iran’s top two tiers. At 30, it is fair to say that he is currently producing his most consistent form in the Iranian Pro League as he looks to fire Tractor towards a top-three finish that would see them qualify for the 2022 AFC Champions League playoff round.

With the halfway point in the domestic season recently passed, Abbaszadeh sits joint third in the scoring charts on nine goals – an impressive strike rate of roughly a goal every two games – and he will be hoping to carry that form into the AFC Champions League and help fire the Tabriz side beyond the group stage for just the second time.

Abbaszadeh previously spent three years with Persepolis earlier in his career and was part of their 2015 AFC Champions League squad but, despite being named on the bench on a number of occasions, the striker got no game time. Six years on, he will be hoping to make amends when Tractor embark on their Group B campaign in Sharjah.

Omar Khrbin (Al Wahda FSCC)

Damascus native Omar Khrbin needs little introduction to fans of Asian football, with the Syrian striker bagging the AFC Champions League top scorer accolade after Al Hilal’s run to the 2017 final. He was particularly impressive in the knockout rounds, where he netted seven times, including five goals over two legs in the semi-final win against Persepolis and another in the first leg of the final against Urawa Red Diamonds.

While Al Hilal narrowly missed out on the title, Khrbin’s form for both the Riyadh side and his country, for whom he netted crucial goals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers as Syria came within two games of advancing for the first time, saw him named as the 2017 AFC Player of the Year

Since then he has suffered various injury problems and played no part in Al Hilal’s 2019 AFC Champions League-winning campaign, while he also had a short stint in Egypt. Now back in the UAE, where he previously played for Al Dhafra, the 27-year-old is beginning to look like the Khrbin of old, with six league goals this year and another in Al Wahda’s playoff victory over Al Zawraa that saw them return to the group stage.

Baghdad Bounedjah (Al Sadd SC)

Yet another AFC Champions League Golden Boot winner, Baghdad Bounedjah’s goals fired Al Sadd to within one game of the 2018 AFC Champions League final. Indeed, his tally of 13 that season not only saw him finish as top scorer, it also matched the tournament’s best-ever return in a single campaign, achieved by Guangzhou Evergrande’s Muriqui in 2013.

Since joining the Doha side in 2015, the Algerian has scored at a rate of more than a goal a game. He has twice picked up the Qatar Stars League top scorer accolade in the past three years, most recently last week after Al Sadd finished their title-winning campaign unbeaten with Bounedjad having scored 21 times.

Since the 2018 campaign, the goals have not flowed quite so regularly on the continent for the 29-year-old, although four goals in six games on Al Sadd’s run to the 2020 quarter-finals was still an impressive return.

With the creativity Spaniard Santi Cazorla and Akram Afif behind him, Bounedjah will surely have plenty of chances to add to his AFC Champions League tally in the group stage.

Michael Olunga (Al Duhail SC)

Kenyan frontman Michael Olunga swapped East Asia for West Asia earlier in the year after producing a scintillating two seasons for Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol, where his goals in 2019 helped fire the side straight back into the top flight having only been relegated a year earlier.

What came next was even better as the 27-year-old netted 28 goals in 32 appearances to finish as the J1 League’s leading scorer by an incredible 10 goals. He also became the first African to win the league’s MVP award as his performances helped secure Kashiwa a comfortable top-half finish in their first season back in the big time.

Olunga has taken his prolific form to Qatar, where he has netted seven times for Al Duhail since making his debut in mid-February. An imposing striker with great technical ability and a ruthlessness in front of goal, the Doha side will hope their new striker can be the missing piece of the jigsaw as he gets set to embark on what will be his maiden AFC Champions league campaign.

Ayman Hussein (Air Force Club)

It’s just over five years since Ayman Hussein shot to stardom in his homeland after his extra-time header saw Iraq defeat Qatar to finish third at the 2016 AFC U23 Championship and with it qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Since then, the forward has been at several clubs in Iraq’s top flight and also had a short stint in Tunisia, before returning to Baghdad to join three-time AFC Cup winners Air Force club in 2019. After the 2019-20 Iraqi Premier League was cancelled due to Covid-19, Hussein’s goals have fired his side to the top of the 2020-21 standings as they look to secure a first title since 2017.

Perhaps even more significantly, it was Hussein’s excellent finish in stoppage time that took the AFC Champions League play-off game against Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda into extra time. Air Force Club ultimately won on penalties to return to the continental competition for the first time since 2008, while their number nine is now set to make his tournament bow.

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