Middle East pride and a shot at 2019 AFC Champions League glory will be on the minds of heavyweights Al Sadd and Al Hilal for Tuesday’s enticing semi-final opener.
An intense clash is expected at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium when these decorated clubs scrap to show who is best placed to end West Asia’s eight-year wait for another winner. Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi will be in the dugout for the hosts, while expectations rest on ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis to force a valuable away goal.
Their names have become synonymous with goalscoring.
Both Sadd’s Bounedjah and Hilal’s Gomis, however, have stuttered at times in Asia’s premier club competition this year.
The latter found himself regularly on the score sheet for clubs such as Lyon and Galatasaray, prior to plundering 24 goals in 35 Saudi Professional League run-outs for Hilal. His Algerian opposite number has upped the ante in the region, netting a preposterous 45 times in 25 Qatar Stars League matches since the start of 2018/19 alone.
But Gomis is scoreless in three games since a round-of-16 hat-trick at Al Ahli Jeddah, while Bounedjah’s suspect penalty in the previous round versus Al Nassr ended a five-match scoreless run. They must now catch fire.
WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION
The time is now for both clubs.
January’s resounding Asian Cup success from Sadd’s sizeable Qatar contingent has bred expectation. So, too, Xavi’s startling – but not surprising – early impact that sees his inherited champions top the nascent 2019/20 QSL with a game spare.
“#ACL2019 is the only trophy I’m missing with @Alhilal_EN 🏆”— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) September 30, 2019
”I’m not looking for revenge against Urawa 🇯🇵”
”We’re only looking for a win 🔝”
we asked @salem_d29 some questions before tomorrow’s game 🗣👇 pic.twitter.com/TjmJeEXU3S
For Hilal, new coach Razvan Lucescu knows all other aspects of his job pale into insignificance when compared to lifting a first continental crown since 2000 – and first of the ACL era.
The last time Sadd faced down a Saudi side, they ran them off the park.
Reticent SPL holders Nassr cracked under a second-half onslaught in the quarter-final decider. They, however, could become victims of this method in Qatar.
A central unit of Salman Al Faraj, Mohammed Kanno and Sebastian Giovinco look to have the legs on Gabi, Jung Woo-young and Nam Tae-hee.
Xavi has alternated between 5-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations, to date. It will be intriguing to witness how he tackles this test.
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