Saudi power will come to fore when Al Ittihad and Al Hilal meet, plus other ACL talking points

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Life in Saudi Arabia will pause on Tuesday night when the latest instalment of a football-obsessed nation’s defining rivalry is played out in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals.

An electric King Abdullah Sports City is guaranteed when Riyadh’s Al Hilal emerge onto hostile territory to meet Jeddah’s Al Ittihad. This Saudi Al Clasico first leg pits the Kingdom’s best supported and most storied teams against each other, with the ultimate prize a semi-final berth against Saudi Professional League holders Al Nassr or Spain legend Xavi’s Al Sadd of Qatar.

PAST AND PRESENT

When it comes to collecting trophies and winning hearts in Saudi Arabia, the Al Clasico contenders are a class apart.

They share more than 100 pieces of silverware, plus followings on social media counted in multiple millions.

For the trophy count, Hilal lead by 60-48. Itti, however, possess two of what the bereft Crescent crave most – ACL crowns.

Stinging failure in Asia’s premier club competition since its 2002 founding has created raw wounds in the blue half of the capital.

The dysfunctional Tigers last won the SPL in 2009, were nearly relegated for the first time in 2018/19 and finished 35 points behind runners-up Hilal.

Plentiful reminders from Monday’s hosts about their enviable back-to-back successes from 2004-05, however, will still severely rankle. It could provide an invaluable psychological edge.

SAUDIS TO THE FORE

Foreign stars hold huge sway in the SPL.

But in the ACL, tables turn. A cut in the foreign quartet from the domestic seven to the continental four ensures that the calibre of indigenous performers is pivotal.

This is where a notable – and probably decisive – disparity between Ittihad and Hilal emerges.

Saudi Arabia’s 2019 Asian Cup squad contained one current Ittihad player – now banned doper Fahad Al Muwallad – and imminent signing Abdulaziz Al Bishi.

Hilal boasted five regular starters, with influential midfielder Salman Al Faraj injured on tournament’s eve.

YANG’S SHAKY START

A noteworthy part of pre-season for Hilal was new coach Razvan Lucescu’s ruthless replacement of resident Australia centre-back Milos Degenek with FC Tokyo’s Jang Hyun-soo.

The former South Korea international’s superior comfort in possession was cited as justification. His clumsy foul, though, to concede a penalty in Friday’s SPL opening 4-2 victory versus promoted Abha put his defensive work in inferior light.

On-song Ittihad attacker Romarinho – with four goals in three run-outs this term – will have taken note.

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