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By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Former champions Al Hilal were handed a 4-1 thrashing by tournament debutantes Istiklol in Riyadh on Saturday as the club from Tajikistan moved to the top of the Group A standings in the Asian Champions League.
The Saudi Arabian side, who won the title in 2019, had taken the lead through Bafetimbi Gomis but a brace apiece for Manuchekhr Dzhalilov and Manuchehr Safarov earned Istiklol a win that puts them on top of the group with two games remaining.
Only the winners in each of the 10 groups in the newly expanded competition are guaranteed to advance to the next round, where they will be joined by the six best runners-up.
Istiklol have seven points and lead Group A from Al Hilal by virtue of a better head-to-head record against the Saudis with Shabab Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates in third on four points after their 3-1 win over Uzbekistan's AGMK.
Gomis gave Al Hilal the lead with a header that beat goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov via the inside of the post in the 24th minute but, by halftime, Istiklol were in front.
Dzalilov claimed his first six minutes before the break when he poked home from close range and, with a minute remaining in the half, he struck again with a fine effort from outside the penalty area.
Safarov's miss-hit cross evaded goalkeeper Abdullah Al Maiouf four minutes into the second half to extend Istiklol's lead and the win was sealed in the 53rd minute when the winger claimed his second with a low drive into the bottom corner.
In Group C in Jeddah, Qatar's Al Duhail remain in pole position, one point ahead of Esteghlal after the pair shared a 2-2 draw.
Kenyan striker Michael Olunga scored his sixth goal in three games with a brace against the Iranians as Cheick Diabate and Mehdi Ghayedi netted for Esteghlal.
Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli moved level on seven points with Esteghlal with a 2-1 win over Al Shorta of Iraq, who now have no chance of finishing in the top two positions.
Clubs from the west of Asia are playing the group games of the Asian Champions League in centralised hubs due to the ongoing pandemic.
Teams in the east of the continent will hold their group matches in June and July, with the knockout rounds scheduled to start in September.
(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by Daniel Wallis)