There is a unique Saudi flavour in this week’s 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final openers.
For the first time since the regions split in 2013, three of the four slots in west Asia are filled by one nation.
Al Hilal saw off Al Ahli Jeddah in the round of 16 and face another familiar face, Al Ittihad, on Tuesday at King Abdullah Sports City. Spain legend Xavi’s Al Sadd, of Qatar, then stand in the way of Saudi Professional League champions Al Nassr on Monday at a tinderbox King Fahd International Stadium.
Here we assess the Kingdom’s trio of contenders:
2019 ACL record: 5W, 1D, 2L, GF 14, GA 8
Best Asian finish: Champions (1991, 2000)
The summer sojourn has done Hilal a world of good.
After a poor end to 2018/19, ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis has responded with five goals in three matches.
New coach Razvan Lucescu’s winning touch from Greek’s PAOK has, seemingly, travelled with him.
Even the disappointment of another knee problem incurred by unfortunate Saudi midfield metronome Abdullah Otayf in the 4-2 SPL opening triumph versus promoted Abha has been negated by Salman Al Faraj’s reintegration.
2019 ACL record: 5W, 2D, 1L, GF 19, GA 13
Best Asian finish: Champions (2004, 2005)
Coach Sierra’s press conference following the win against Alraed pic.twitter.com/5XEAGrzbTY— Ittihad Club (@ittihad_en) August 23, 2019
Jose Luis Sierra’s glorious return to Jeddah shows no sign of abating.
His answering of February’s alarm call prevented humiliating relegation last term. Now, he’s building towards something bigger.
Friday’s 3-1 dismissal of Al Raed in the SPL was lit up by a brace from Brazilian forward Romarinho and a confidence-boosting assist for big-money summer addition Haroune Camara.
This made it four wins from four games in 2019/20, with 12 goals scored and five conceded.
2019 ACL record: 4W, 2D, 2L, GF 15, GA 10
Best Asian finish: Runners-up (1995)
Talk pre-match in the yellow half of Riyadh has centred on the condition of record-breaking striker Abderrazak Hamdallah’s foot.
The leading scorer in a single Saudi top-flight campaign (34 goals in 2018/19’s unforgettable debut) picked up where he left off, netting a header in Thursday’s 2-0 procession against promoted Damac. His forced removal through injury on 71 minutes, however, likely robs boss Rui Vitoria of the scorer of 49.2 per cent of last term’s SPL goals.
Restrictions on the selection of a foreign quartet could force a prominent role for prolific Saudi Arabia Under-20 striker Firas Al Buraikan.
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