FILE PHOTO: Mehdi Badrloo (L) of Iran's Foolad Khouzestan fights for the ball with Mohammed Kassola of Qatar's Al-Sadd during their AFC Champions League soccer match at Hamad Bin Jassim Stadium in Doha. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

By Michael Church

 – Defending champions Al Hilal salvaged their unbeaten record in this year’s Asian Champions League on Saturday when late goals from Muteb Al Mufarrij and Salem Al Dawsari earned the Saudi Arabians a 2-2 draw with Sharjah in Riyadh.

Ramon Diaz’s side had already guaranteed themselves a place in the next round with wins in each of their opening four games, but first-half goals from Ousmane Camara and Majid Rashid left Al Hilal staring at their first defeat of the campaign.

The draw keeps Al Hilal in pole position in Group A with one round of matches remaining, although the four-time champions are already guaranteed a place in the next round.

The winners of each of the five groups in west Asia advance to the knockout rounds, where they will be joined by the three teams with the best runners-up records.

Al Hilal are already assured of at least one of the best runners-up spots and have qualified alongside Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab and Qatar’s Al Duhail.

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Saturday’s results also mean Group C leaders Foolad from Iran are now certain to claim at least one of the runners-up spots despite having one round of matches left to play.

Al Hilal’s unbeaten record came under threat when Camara glanced his fifth-minute header home to give Sharjah the lead, and Rashid doubled the advantage in stoppage time when he drove his shot into the bottom corner.

The champions fought back, however, and Al Mufarrij halved the deficit 12 minutes from time with a close-range finish before Al Dawsari calmly stroked his 96th-minute spotkick past Adel Al Hossani to level the score.

The draw ended Sharjah’s hopes of a place in the next round as Cosmin Olaroiu’s side are now five points adrift of second-placed Al Rayyan from Qatar, who defeated Istiklol from Tajikistan 1-0 through Yohan Boli’s last-minute goal.

Al Hilal leads Group A with 13 points and is three clear of Al Rayyan, who it will face in their final group match on Wednesday.

In Group E, Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi kept alive its hopes of progressing to the next round with a 3-1 win over Al Sadd from Qatar.

The victory, which came courtesy of Akmal Mozgovoy’s brace, moved Ruzykul Berdyev’s team to within a point of leaders Al Faisaly after the Saudi side were held to a 1-1 draw by Jordan’s Al Wehdat.

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(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Editing by Paul Simao)

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