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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Revenge is on the minds of Al Hilal for round five in the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League.
An abysmal end to April saw upstarts Al Taawoun inflict ruinous defeats in the top flight and King’s Cup. The sides meet again on Thursday at King Saud University Stadium.
Elsewhere, there is an unlikely top-three contest and Al Ittihad must stave off that sinking feeling. Here are the talking points:
TIME TO TERRORISE TAAWOUN?
These were four of the worst days in Hilal’s 61-year history.
An atomic bomb was taken to ambitions of claiming the double by Taawoun. The shameful 5-0 semi-final Cup humiliation brought a swift end to Zoran Mamic’s troubled reign, while caretaker Pericles Chamusca could not avert a 2-0 loss less than a week later that, basically, handed the top-flight crown to Riyadh rivals Al Nassr.
Fast forward to King Saud University Stadium this Thursday and the picture has changed.
Pedro Emanuel is gone at Taawoun after last term’s astounding Cup success and third-placed finish. Compatriot Paulo Sergio has experienced a solid start, albeit one hampered by fixture delays.
Their Cameroon centre forward Leandre Tawamba will also be desperate to get back among the goals.
Hilal are flying under their new boss Razvan Lucescu, pulverising Itti twice last week across two competitions. With much of the squad still in situ, an ominous fourth victory in five 2019/20 SPL fixtures, if attained, will taste extra sweet.
AN ATYPICAL TOP-THREE CLASH
Hilal’s chasing pack has an unfamiliar look.
Tucked in directly behind in the table are the SPL’s working definition of a steady hand, Al Faisaly, and free-wheeling debutants Al Adalah. These clubs meet at Al Majma’ah Sports City on Saturday in an intriguing clash.
Chamusca’s posting at Hilal has, seemingly, had no disruptive effect. That they’ve accrued eight points from only four goals scored speaks volume about how efficient they are.
Adalah, meanwhile, have rocketed in the goals through Senegalese midfielder Aliou Cisse and Madagascar forward Carolus Andria. Embrace this clash of styles, SPL fans.
TIGERS ALREADY IN A SCRAP
It’s been a worrying few weeks for Ittihad.
Their five-match winless run has seem them fall into the drop zone – albeit, with a game in hand – and exit the AFC Champions League at the hands of Hilal.
A full season back under Jose Luis Sierra’s care was meant to prevent another lengthy toil against relegation. Now comes an illustrative match with undefeated Al Shabab.
This result, and performance, will speak volumes about the months ahead.
The adage that defending a title is harder than winning one is proving true in 2019/20 for Al Nassr.
Rui Vitoria’s disciplined side deservedly pipped Al Hilal to the Saudi Professional League’s crown last May. Fast forward to the end of September, however, and it is their refreshed Riyadh rivals who hold a three-point advantage over the fifth-placed holders at the top.
A 1-0 defeat at home to also-rans Al Hazem last week followed the goalless derby stalemate with Al Shabab. In-between, access to a first AFC Champions League semi-final – where Hilal also awaited – was denied by Xavi’s livelier Al Sadd.
For now, it is only a mini-crisis. But fail to beat managerless giants Al Ahli Jeddah on Friday and serious questions will be asked about their current trajectory.
With the help of Wyscout, we’ve looked at the early season issues impacting the men from King Fahd Stadium:
THE BARE NUMBERS
A clear demarcation is evident about Vitoria’s nine-month tenure.
The ex-Benfica boss had a galvanising impact upon arrival on January 10, until signing off the club’s 2018/19 commitments with a 0-0 draw against Iran’s Zob Ahan in the ACL’s Group A.
Statistics, however, clearly show in 2019/20 that this approach has begun to break down.
Vitoria’s opening four months featured some of the most-efficient attacking play ever performed in the Kingdom, plus remarkable solidarity of purpose and clarity of vision. They pressed in the middle through Petros and Abdulaziz Al Jebreen, then flung in crosses from Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat for record-breaking countryman Abderrazak Hamdallah to attack.
In the 23 matches played under Vitoria in 2018/19 for which records exist (none were officially logged for his 5-0 win against Al Ansar on debut in January 15’s second-round King’s Cup clash), Nassr averaged; 2.7 goals, 1.9 xG (expected goals), 0.9 goals conceded, 14.8 attempts, 57.2-per-cent possession, 18 crosses, 64.9 passes to the final third, 7.5 attempts faced, 38.3 interceptions, 13.1 clearances and 3.5 slide-tackle attempts.
For this campaign, however, most of these critical figures have slipped in the wrong direction. From their eight games in 2019/20, they average; 1.3 goals, 1.5 xG (expected goals), 1 goal conceded, 13.6 attempts, 51-per-cent possession, 15.8 crosses, 58.4 passes to the final third, 9.9 attempts faced, 42 interceptions, 15.9 clearances and 2.6 slide-tackle attempts.
Nassr significantly outperformed their xG last term, with a subsequent recalibration costing points. They also have far less possession in 2019/20, have scored less than half the goals per game, pass the ball into the final third on fewer occasions, are pumping in 2.2 fewer crosses per fixture and are allowing nearly double as many attempts against them.
So what are the causes of this drop-off?
HURT BY HAMDALLAH
Nassr’s fitful start to 2019/20 is neatly encapsulated by Hamdallah.
The Morocco centre forward’s unmatched 34 goals in 26 run-outs upon arrival from Qatar’s Al Rayyan broke the all-time SPL scoring record for a single season. A combination of injury and his club’s malaise has curtailed this season’s contribution.
Under Vitoria’s care during 17 officially recorded matches in 2018/19, he was averaging, in all competitions, sensational figures per game of; 1.8 goals, 4.9 attempts, 1.1 xG, 5.1/2.3 aerial duels/won and 6.9 touches in the penalty box.
Hamdallah has still netted four times in six 2019/20 matches, including a goal at Sadd upon his return to Doha. This is his only strike, however, in a trio of games since a foot injury was picked up on the opening-day 2-0 triumph against promoted Damac.
Across all these fixtures, a spell that includes early August’s round-of-16 Asian double header versus the UAE’s Al Wahda, regression is obvious from the averages; 0.7 goals, 4 attempts, 0.5 xG, 3.8/0.8 aerial duels/won and 5.5 touches in the penalty box.
Hamdallah is far more than mere goal scorer to Vitoria. His pugilist’s physique and controlled aggression make sense of direct tactics.
Stand-in Firas Al Buraikan got the only goal in August 30’s laboured victory at Al Fateh when Hamdallah was absent from SPL duty.
But when their star striker is not up for the fight, neither are Nassr.
A significant caveat, however, comes from the fact a slow start to 2018/19 witnessed only three goals scored in the opening 10 fixtures – an absurd 46 more would follow.
Not all influential factors can be found in a database.
Deeper-rooted faults could be at play for the SPL holders.
Success can breed unique problems. Rumours have become rampant about friction building between the squad and the Nassr paymasters.
Amrabat was forced this week to state on Twitter that “it’s not true” he’d demanded wage parity with those gifted to Hamdallah by July’s lucrative three-year contract extension, while Saudi newspaper Okaz states Brazilian workhorse Petros is refusing to ink a fresh deal with the terms currently on offer.
Has the summer’s absence of major business also taken a necessary edge off sated players that were hungry 12 months ago to land a first SPL crown since 2014/15?
Brazil centre-back Bruno Uvini was the only major departure as Nassr met the drop in the foreign quota from eight to seven, while $6.7 million Al Taawoun attacker Abdulfattah Adam is only now fully fit.
Change has been afoot in Nassr’s engine room.
2018/19’s settled five-man midfield contained energetic Brazilian Petros and a Saudi player – typically Al Jebreen when fit – at the base.
In front of them, the foreign trio of Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa, the influential Giuliano and traditional Morocco wide man Amrabat would supply sterling service to lone frontman Hamdallah. Diminutive Saudi Arabia winger Yahya Al Shehri would then, usually, offer genuine quality off the substitutes’ bench.
This settled picture has shifted this term – and is likely to become more unstable from here.
Al Jebreen, 29, has yet to make an appearance because of another fitness problem, while Al Shehri may make the bench at Ahli for the first time after a dislocated shoulder.
The latter will be of huge importance throughout the winter after pivotal playmaker Giuliano suffered a muscle tear. He was the only title winner last season to feature in all 30 SPL matches.
Musa has also only contributed one assist in two SPL run-outs and was left out of the four-player foreign quota in the ACL knockouts. Fahad bin Jumayah has also proven a pale imitation of the absent Al Shehri.
But even with Giuliano within their ranks, creativity and control in possession have been problematic.
Nassr have averaged 459 passes and 83 progressive passes per game in 2019/20. Last season under Vitoria, these figures were 488.8 and 85.7.
This alteration could further be linked to the lack of first-team experience from emergent Saudi Arabia midfielders Abdullah Al Khaibari – whose four 2019/20 appearances is already half last season’s tally – and Abdulrahman Al Dawsari.
The integration of ex-Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem starlet Mukhtar Ali may need to be accelerated.