Middle Eastern powerhouses meet on Tuesday for the opening stanza in the quest to make the 2019 AFC Champions League final.
Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi’s Al Sadd await at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium for Saudi Professional League leaders Al Hilal. This enticing semi-final pits West Asia’s last winner – back in 2011 – against the club from the Kingdom which most covets this elusive piece of silverware.
Here is the first-leg rundown:
Unsurprisingly for a pair of the continent’s most-decorated outfits, they provide the backbone to their respective national sides.
Hilal’s inventive winger Salem Al Dawsari, ceaseless full-back Yasser Al Shahrani and collected midfielder Salman Al Faraj represent three of Saudi Arabia’s pivotal figures. Sadd supplied nine of Qatar’s 23-man squad that emerged triumphant at Asian Cup 2019, including 2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan and the mercurial, Villarreal-owned playmaker Akram Afif.
Whittling down Hilal’s seven-man SPL foreign quota to the ACL’s four was a thankless task. The 1991 and 2000 Asian Club Championship victors eventually settled on an enviable selection of prolific ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis (now within two strikes of nine-goal 2019 ACL top scorer Leonardo), Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco, Peru winger Andre Carrillo and steady former South Korea centre-back Jang Hyun-soo.
Their opponents boast a striker in Baghdad Bounedjah who netted 39 times in 22 QSL appearances for the 2018/19 champions and scored the only goal in Algeria’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations triumph versus Senegal. Ex-Atletico Madrid war horse Gabi, South Korea anchor man Jung Woo-young and creative compatriot Nam Tae-hee join him.
There is little connecting celebrated Sadd tactician Xavi with opposite number Razvan Lucescu.
The former is undertaking his first steps in management after a momentous 22-year playing career ended this summer. Lucescu was a journeyman goalkeeper, who is steadily proving in a 15-year coaching career that he’s gleamed much from legendary father Mircea.
There is also, obviously, nothing on Xavi’s nascent post-playing C.V. to match Lucescu’s achievements at PAOK last season when the underdogs won a first Superleague Greece crown in 34 years and became the first undefeated side in 55 years.
PATHS TO THE LAST-FOUR
Serenity defines Hilal’s push to a fourth semi-final in six years.
They dominated a Group C packed with – then – domestic title holders. Sadd also finished first in Group D, yet lost twice.
Fellow Saudis Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Ittihad were then kept at arm’s length in the round of 16 and quarter-finals. Rui Faria’s Al Duhail couldn’t lay a glove on their Doha neighbours, before a tense last-eight meeting with 2018/19 SPL champions Al Nassr was decided by Bounedjah’s controversial second-leg penalty.
THE FORM BOOK
This season couldn’t have gone much better for either side.
Both top their domestic competitions and have tasted a single defeat in the ACL knockouts. Sadd are in first place even though they’ve played a game less than the chasing pack, while 2018/19 runners-up Hilal already boast a five-point advantage over holders Nassr in the SPL.
Both have conceded nine goals in nine 2019/20 fixtures. Sadd have outscored Hilal 25-22, while they’ve drawn twice from nine games and it’s three from nine for their impending opponents.
If Afif and Bounedjah are in the mood, expect Sadd to score a few. However, their inferior defence (Sadd have conceded 13 times to Hilal’s nine in the 2019 ACL) will mean the visitors, via an away goal, gain hope for October 22’s Riyadh return.
Al Sadd 2-1 Al Hilal
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