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'Invincibles' once again but Al Sadd's real test now comes in AFC Champions League

Al Sadd's season-ending 2-1 victory over Al Wakrah on March 11 saw them finish the 2021-22 Qatar Stars League campaign with an impressive record of 20 wins, two draws and no defeats -- along with a goal difference of 56. Simon Holmes/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With last week's 2-1 win over Al Wakrah, Al Sadd achieved the remarkable feat of a second consecutive 'Invincibles' campaign -- as they completed a title-winning season in the Qatar Stars League without losing a single match.

Already Qatar's most successful club with a record 16 league crowns to their names, Al Sadd's latest accomplishment further highlighted their current dominance although the prospect of a domestic double did come to an end on Monday with a 3-2 loss to Al Duhail in the Emir of Qatar Cup semifinals.

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Retaining the league title without losing even once throughout the 22-game campaign was arguably even more impressive given they had to deal with the midseason departure of former manager Xavi, who left the club in November to take over the reins of LaLiga giants Barcelona.

Filling Xavi's void seamlessly was compatriot Javi Gracia, whose record -- prior to the recent cup loss to Al Duhail -- stood at a near-impeccable 14 wins and a draw. But the ex-Watford boss will now have to turn his attentions to the one quest that even his predecessor failed to accomplish.

In spite of their status as one of Asian football's traditional heavyweights, Al Sadd have not tasted success in the AFC Champions League -- the continent's premier club competition -- since 2011.

Even the presence of Xavi -- first as a player and then as a manager -- failed to lead them to ACL glory, with their best display in the competition in that time coming in 2018-19 when they fell in the semifinals in both years.

For this reason, it is why, in spite of his ability to finish what Xavi started by leading Al Sadd to another league title this season, the real test for Gracia and his charges will now come in the ACL -- with the West Zone group stage kicking off on April 7.

As is the case most years, Al Sadd will be heavily fancied to reach the knockout round having been drawn in Group E alongside Al Faisaly (Saudi Arabia), Al Wehdat (Jordan) and Nasaf Qarshi (Uzbekistan).

Nonetheless, the shocking inability to do just that last term -- as they finished second in a fairly straightforward group -- should still be fresh in the memory and serve as a reminder that they can ill afford any slip-ups, especially with the expanded tournament format only guaranteeing a Round of 16 berth to the group winners.

And based on the star-studded lineup that Al Sadd continue to boast, a repeat in 2022 will likely be viewed by the club's hierarchy as a massive failure.

In addition to famous names such as ex-Arsenal star Santi Cazorla, Ghana captain Andre Ayew and prolific Algerian striker Baghdad Bounedjah, Al Sadd can also call upon stalwarts such as Hassan Al-Haydos, Akram Afif, Abdelkarim Hassan and Boualem Khoukhi, who were all part of the Qatar side that won the most recent AFC Asian Cup in 2019.

The sheer talent at their disposal and the fact that they continue to dominate proceedings on the domestic front make it rather puzzling that Al Sadd have now failed to replicate this success on the Asian stage for over a decade now.

While it is indeed a big challenge that lies ahead of Gracia, it could also provide him the perfect opportunity to show he is not just at Al Sadd to emulate what Xavi has achieved but take them even further.