A face familiar to millions of football fanatics stands in the way of Al Nassr’s 2019 AFC Champions League ambitions.
Ex-Spain and Barcelona icon Xavi’s nascent managerial career will face its sternest test to date on Monday night when Qatar’s Al Sadd – the sole remaining club not from the Kingdom in the west – travel to the Saudi Professional League holders.
For the hosts at a tinderbox King Fahd International Stadium, all the build-up to this enticing quarter-final first leg centres on the wellbeing of record goal scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah.
Here, we run through the talking points ahead of a hotly-contested clash to come:
FILLING THE HAMDALLAH HOLE
Some players are simply irreplaceable.
Hamdallah, unquestionably, fits into this exalted category for Nassr. The centre forward continued where he left off from 2018/19’s historic 34-goal debut SPL campaign (the most registered in Saudi from a single season), heading home a trademark goal during Thursday’s 2-0 opening victory against promoted Damac.
A painful end to proceedings, however, would see the 28-year-old removed on 71 minutes with what has been described as a “sprain in the foot joint”.
Anxiety levels in the yellow half of Riyadh have subsequently ebbed and flowed about the Morocco international’s participation. Hamdallah was pictured at training, but Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper state he’s increasingly unlikely to gain medical clearance.
The inexperience of obvious replacement Firas Al Buraikan is compounded by the ACL’s foreign-player rules. Only four are allowed to feature at continental level, compared to the SPL’s seven.
Hamdallah’s importance is reflected statistically and on the tactics board.
His 34 top-flight strikes – from a frankly absurd 49-goal campaign in all competitions – represented almost half Nassr’s tally of 69. There is also the pertinent experience and confidence gleaned from previously bagging 39 times in 43 Qatar Stars League matches for Al Rayyan and the subsumed El Jaish.
The focal point and resolve the pugnacious Hamdallah provides in coach Rui Vitoria’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation cannot be replicated by the callow Al Buraikan. Their striking propensity to cross the ball will need review if the main man does not play.
Nassr are in need of a miracle from their medical staff.
XAVI’S MAGIC TOUCH?
Xavi was born to run Barcelona’s midfield.
On the early evidence, he’s also guaranteed to run their first team in the near future.
Retirement from marshalling Sadd’s midfield to QSL title glory in the summer has been followed by a refinement of their playing style and personnel.
From a quartet of competitive games in charge, Sadd have won three times and drawn once.
They comfortably beat neighbours Al Duhail 4-2 on aggregate in the ACL’s round of 16, edged Rui Faria’s men 1-0 in the Sheikh Jassim Cup and dismantled 10-man Al Wakrah 4-1 in the top flight.
Injury, however, to new South Korea playmaker Nam Tae-hee is unfortunate. Sadd’s all-time ACL record of five draws and four losses in Saudi is a further worry.
Nassr represent another step-up in quality and intensity. So too a possible semi-final against either Al Hilal or Al Ittihad, both also from the Kingdom.
But Xavi’s rejection of being an unalloyed Barca advocate presents opportunity.
His move to a 3-5-2 formation from the expected 4-3-3 has added both an element of surprise, plus ballast for Sadd’s eventual hopes of a third ACL success.
NASSR TO MAKE NEW HISTORY
This is a special time in Nassr’s, often-strained, modern history.
From years of chaos off the pitch, a richly financed team emerged in 2018/19 to end a SPL drought stretching back to 2014/15.
But they have never experienced such joy in Asia. The best they’ve done is 1995’s runners-up berth in the preceding Asian Club Championship.
They are now in uncharted territory in the ACL, being previously knocked out in the groups twice and reaching 2011’s round of 16.
This is where the UEFA Champions League exposure of ex-Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones, former Benfica boss Rui Vitoria and PSV Eindhoven youth product Nordin Amrabat could prove key.
Calm heads are essential in the red-hot King Fahd on Monday. It could prove the difference in the quest to take something tangible to Doha on September 16.
Know more about Sport360 Application