The AFC Champions League holds a special place in Saudi Arabian sporting hearts – and rarely has this statement rung truer than for 2019.
Last summer’s paradigm-shifting spend has seen the Kingdom’s quartet head into the tournament, that kicks off on Monday, with renewed enthusiasm and emboldened confidence. The pressure is highest at Al Hilal, who, simply, must go one better than 2014 and 2017’s near misses after landing a bevy of superstar signings.
Al Ahli Jeddah in February ruthlessly hired 2012 winner Jorge Fossati with the continental competition in mind. Al Nassr and Al Ittihad were both denied licences to compete last year because of financial irregularities, yet the former are now soaring under ex-Benfica tactician Rui Vitoria and the latter will hope to belie their shock relegation woes in the Saudi Professional League.
Here is a go-to guide for the foursomes’ prospects this year:
AL AHLI JEDDAH
Best finish: Runners-up (1986, 2012)
2018 record: Round of 16
2019 Group: D – Persepolis (Iran), Al Sadd (Qatar), Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan)
Pros: Few club sides across the continent boast the firepower present in the Ahli ranks. Djaniny has continued where he left off at Mexico’s Santos Laguna and Omar Al Somah is without compare – see his stupendous bicycle kick in Friday’s derby draw with Al Ittihad. Continued faith in Saudi Arabia No1 Mohammed Al Owais should also tell, unlike many SPL contemporaries who’ve gone foreign.
Cons: There have been teething problems under Fossati. Paulo Diaz has not convinced in a sweeper role in the 3-5-2 formation, while two losses and a draw have been witnessed domestically. This is a dangerous position to be in, with Persepolis making 2018’s showpiece and Al Sadd providing so many of Qatar’s 2019 Asian Cup winners – plus, the incomparable Xavi.
Foreigners: Paulo Diaz (Chile), Nicolae Stanciu (Romania), Djaniny (Cape Verde), Omar Al Somah (Syria)
Prediction: Group stage
Best finish: Winners (1991, 2000)
2018 record: Group stage
2019 Group: C – Al Duhail (Qatar), Al Ain (UAE), Esteghlal (Iran)
Pros: Where to begin. Hilal boast stars of global renown in ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis and sometime Italy creator Sebastian Giovinco. The telepathy between this pair is already apparent. Such stellar additions have combined with the cream of Saudi talent, such as winter addition and breakout Asian Cup 2019 winger Hattan Bahebri, to make the SPL champions appear indestructible. A seamless transition between Jorge Jesus and Zoran Mamic in the dugout also helps.
Cons: Pressure can do funny things. Hilal’s hierarchy have made no secret about the fact that winning the 2019 edition is the bare minimum after substantial spends in the summer and winter markets.
Can underutilised domestic players such as goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf, awful at World Cup 2018, carry this burden? Also, Milos Degenek is Hilal’s only non-Saudi aged under 29. Will this act as a burden against youthful Duhail and powerful Esteghlal?
Foreigners: Milos Degenek (Australia), Carlos Eduardo (Brazil), Sebastian Giovinco (Italy), Bafetimbi Gomis (France)
Best finish: Winners (2004, 2005)
2018 record: N/A – failed to obtain AFC licence
2019 Group: B – Al Wahda (UAE), Lokomotiv Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Al Rayyan (Qatar)
Pros: Positives are in short supply during a season that currently promises a first-ever relegation. A return to Jose Luis Sierra – cut loose last summer before the disasters under Ramon Diaz and Slaven Bilic – elicited an upturn in the weekend’s stalemate with Ahli.
A comfortable pool offers the potential, however slim, to build momentum, plus bring countryman Carlos Villanueva back to his influential best.
Cons: Ittihad have frittered fortunes away and spent the entire 2018/19 SPL season in the relegation zone. This follows on from two-successive failures to gain licences to compete, meaning contemporary experience of the competition is in pitifully short supply.
At least three victories are required to progress. From 28 matches across all competitions in this season to forget, they’ve won just six times.
Foreigners: Matthew Jurman (Australia), Sekou Sanogo (Ivory Coast), Carlos Villanueva (Chile), Romarinho (Brazil)
Prediction: Round of 16
Best finish: Runners-up (1995)
2018 record: N/A – failed to obtain AFC licence
2019 Group: A – Al Wasl (UAE), Al Zawraa (Iraq), Zob Ahan (Iran)
Pros: Nassr perfectly fit the billing as competition dark horses. Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah is a proven predator at this level, Brazil playmaker Giuliano will relish pulling the strings in Asia and dominant centre-back Omar Hawsawi is back to full fitness.
Under Vitoria, they’ve won five out of six top-flight fixtures. Wasl, Zawraa and Zob Ahan should offer welcoming opponents. Momentum is on their side. It’ll be intriguing to see how far it takes Nassr.
Cons: For all coach Vitoria’s success at Benfica, with six trophies in four years, he only once took the Portuguese giants to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Does this represent financial reality, or a lack of guile at the highest level?
The failed experiment in bringing in Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa has also robbed the club of an option who is battle hardened in Europe’s grandest club competition.
Foreigners: Brad Jones (Australia), Maicon, Giuliano (both Brazil), Abderrazak Hamdallah (Morocco)
Know more about Sport360 Application