(Reuters) - Saudi club Al Ahli beat Iraq's Al Shorta with a late goal from German international Marko Marin to become the first team into the knockout stages of Asian Champions League as the continental club competition returned in Doha on Monday.
Seven months after grinding to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, action in Asia's premier club competition got back underway with three matches in the West Asian hub in Qatar.
The withdrawal of Al Wahda after the Emirati side failed to arrive in the Qatari capital left Group A with only three teams and Al Ahli, runners up in 2012, took full advantage to progress to the last 16.
Al Shorta's resumption hit a road bump just before halftime at an empty Khalifa International Stadium when defender Ali Mhawi was sent off for a second bookable offence.
The Iraqis still had the better of the second half and it was not until four minutes from time that winger Marin finished coolly from just outside the six-yard box.
"I am happy to play an official game after a long time on the sidelines," the former Werder Bremen and Chelsea player told the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) website.
"I am happy to start the competition with a win against a strong team like Al Shorta. It was a great performance ..."
In later action, reigning champions Al Hilal made it a good night for Saudi clubs when they also got a late winner to beat Uzbeki champions Pakhtakor 2-1 and move three points clear at the top of Group B.
Al Hilal lost the services of five players and a coach when they tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
The Saudi Pro League champions, who beat Urawa Reds over two legs last year to win their third Asian title, also benefited from a sending off when Pakhtakor's Eldorbek Suyonov was given his marching orders for handling the ball outside his area.
Attacking midfielder Hattan Bahebri secured the three points for Al Hilal almost seven minutes into stoppage time when his shot from the edge of the area took a big deflection off a defender to wrongfoot substitute keeper Sanzar Kuvvatov.
Al Hilal have nine points from three matches with Pakhtakor in second place on six, while Emirati club Shabab Al Ahli Dubai are third with three points after their 1-0 win over Iran's Shahr Khodro in Monday's third match.
The losing teams will not have to wait long to avenge their defeats as the return fixtures are being played on Friday with the AFC looking to complete all the West Asian group games by Sept. 26.
Matches in the four East Asian groups resume in a hub in Malaysia in October. The final will be in Doha on Dec. 19.
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)