AFC Champions League: Poor preparations and Saudi stars to influence Al Hilal v Al Ittihad tie

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Nawaf Al Abed (l).

The Saudi El Clasico is sure to, belatedly, catch light when great rivals Al Ittihad and Al Hilal compete on Tuesday for a berth in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s semi-finals.

More than 54,000 impassioned fans packed into Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City experienced an incongruous and sedate goalless draw in the opening stanza. Something has to give when the action resumes at Riyadh’s King Saud University Stadium.

SAUDI POWER

The attention of the Kingdom will centre on the King Saud.

It would be wrong for this gaze to fixate, alone, on foreign ranks which contain the likes of ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis and prolific Brazilian forward Romarinho. The passions of this 69-year-old rivalry are uniquely Saudi – it would be fitting if locals decide it.

Forgotten superstar Nawaf Al Abed’s fine opener versus Al Fayha gave a timely reminder of his talents, while goals this month from fellow winger Salem Al Dawsari earned Saudi Arabia draws versus Mali and Yemen.

From the yellow and black hordes, destiny calls for summer buy Haroune Camara. Serbia centre forward Aleksandar Prijovic’s absence from Ittihad’s reduced four-player non-domestic quota opens up opportunity.

IMPERFECT PREPARATIONS

Neither combatant can be impressed with weekend results.

The Saudi Professional League’s resumption witnessed 2018/19 runners-up Hilal drop points for the first time this term in a 1-1 draw with unfancied Fayha. This slip was inflicted on home soil, via a 94th-minute leveller from Arsenio.

Ittihad, however, did even worse. Calamitous errors from centre-backs Manuel da Costa and Abdulmohsen Fallatah gifted a landmark 2-1 victory to promoted Damac.

AWAY DAY BLUES?

Signs of potential success for the visitors are scant.

They sit 12th in the SPL and look set for another flirt with relegation, while Hilal’s potent attack puts them top. The Tigers, however, boast successive – and impressive – away Asian wins at Qatar’s Al Rayyan and Iran’s Zob Ahan.

If they make this a hat-trick on Tuesday, Ittihad’s faithful may yet be able to keep crowing about two ACL titles to their opponents’ painful zero.

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Al Ahli Jeddah supremo Branko Ivankovic set to be confirmed as first SPL sacking of 2019/20

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Floundering Al Ahli Jeddah supremo Branko Ivankovic is expected to be imminently confirmed as the first managerial casualty of the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League, according to widespread reports.

Ivankovic, 65, witnessed his brief reign at King Abdullah Sports City plumb new depths on Saturday with a rancorous 2-1 home loss to Al Wehda. Condemnation reigned down from scarcely attended stands, with calls for change reaching fever pitch after only two miserable months in charge.

The defeat followed a season-opening 1-1 draw with top-flight debutants Al Adalah and a fortunate 2-1 triumph at Ettifaq. Elimination in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 was also recorded last month versus Al Hilal, the generous 4-3 aggregate scoreline owing much to the Riyadh side sitting back on their dominant first-leg advantage.

Further issues included a reportedly tempestuous relationship with star striker Omar Al Somah, plus unpropitious starts for foreign additions such as Serbia forward Danijel Aleksic – already sold to Istanbul Basaksehir – and Bosnia midfielder Elvis Saric.

Verification of Ivankovic’s departure will mean that Ahli are searching for their fifth permanent coach since the beginning of 2017/18.

Ukraine legend Serhiy Rebrov was sacked in April after the SPL crown was lost to Al Hilal by a single point and replaced by caretaker Fathi Al Jabal. Argentina’s Pablo Guede lasted from July 2018-February 2019 and Uruguay veteran Jorge Fossati endured an abysmal 68-day spell at the helm until April.

Ivankovic was then unable to replicate his success in Iran with giants Persepolis and has likely paid with his job.

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2019 AFC Champions League: Xavi stands in way of Al Nassr as they aim for the semi-finals

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Al Nassr will look to build on a slender advantage at Xavi’s Al Sadd and earn a debut AFC Champions League semi-final berth.

Abdulrahman Al Dawsari and the exceptional Guiliano notched last month in Riyadh when the Saudi Professional League holders – who have never got this far before in the current format – came back from behind to defeat the Qatar Stars League winners 2-1. This slender advantage means that a blockbuster second leg should be in store on Monday at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium.

REST OR WORK?

Contrasting preparations have been experienced by this pair of regional heavyweights.

The end of the international break saw Nassr thrust straight back into action on Friday for a fraught goalless draw versus neighbours Al Shabab.

But Sadd have been able to solely focus on this clash. The 2011 ACL winners – and only non-Saudis left in the west – have not played since August 31’s 7-1 dismantling of Al Shahania.

Extra time on the training pitch was also recorded with star attacker Akram Afif after an acrimonious recent stint with Qatar.

Will this work prove the difference for the rested hosts, or can the battle-ready visitors prevail?

HAMDALLAH’S TRICKY RETURN

It was not the return that record-breaking striker Abderrazak Hamdallah envisaged.

A yellow card for a fracas with belligerent Tunisia goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha was all he gained upon his comeback from August 22’s foot injury.

The Morocco striker was kept unusually quiet, registering one on-target attempt and one off-target attempt.

Hamdallah also missed the opener versus Sadd. But his pedigree in the QSL – where he netted 39 times in 37 games for El Jaish and Al Rayyan – should provide a terrorising presence, plus the promise of a cherished away goal.

SWITCHING STYLES

Those expecting the Barcelona blueprint to be replicated by Xavi in his first managerial role have been left bemused.

The lionised midfielder initially favoured a 3-4-1-2 formation. His sizeable Qatar contingent’s comfort with the system, surely, influenced this choice.

The humiliation of Shahania, however, featured a ‘Barca-esque’ 4-3-3. With this tie so delicately poised, it will be intriguing to see which route the coaching novice goes down.

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