For the second time in three years, Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds stand in the way of Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and long-awaited success in the AFC Champions League.
The Reds painfully prevailed in 2017’s two-legged final, largely on the back of a 1-1 opening draw in Riyadh. They reconvene in the same city, but at King Saud University Stadium, on Saturday for this year’s opener in the continental decider.
Expectation weighs heavily on Bafetimbi Gomis, Sebastian Giovinco and Co for Hilal. The Kingdom’s most-decorated club desperately desire an end for their 19-year wait to be called the continent’s finest once more, while lob-sided recent history means west Asia last took home the trophy in 2011.
For Urawa, memories of a wretched J1 League campaign will be erased by a third ACL triumph. They currently sit a lowly 11th, five points off the relegation play-off but with two games extra played.
It is not hyperbole to say this fixture means absolutely everything to Hilal.
Claims to be the continent’s premier side have started to ring hollow, solely because of an agonising failure to add to 1991 and 2000’s Asian Club Championship triumphs. Revered ex-Benfica and Sporting Lisbon boss Jorge Jesus was even staggeringly dismissed last January because of a refusal to commit to the complete 2019 ACL programme.
The perplexing inability to swat aside Australian minnows Western Sydney Wanderers in a one-sided 2014 final particularly rankles. A different kind of frustration is reserved for 2017’s bout with Urawa.
Hilal were frustrated by the then J1 League runners-up in the opening 1-1 draw, where they dominated possession (68 per cent/32 per cent) and attempts (20/6). They were eventually put out of their misery by outstanding Brazilian forward Rafael Silva’s solitary strike at Saitama Stadium 2002, shortly after Salem Al Dawsari’s reckless late dismissal.
Significant pressure to make amends will be present at a sold-out and partisan King Saud. Urawa’s recent domestic travails only add to this constricting clamour for opening victory.
Hilal have, disconcertingly, lost two of three home knockout ties in this edition. A sole victory in the quarter-finals versus Ittihad owed much to Assaf Al Qarni’s combustion in goal.
Their steadfast opponents, meanwhile, have been defeated just once in eight 2019 ACL trips. They impressively conquered Fabio Cannavaro’s star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande 1-0 in the semi-finals.
These are unwelcome statistics for Hilal as in 11 years of two-legged finals, all five home teams held in the first leg went on to lose. Conversely, all six home first-leg winners triumphed overall.
URAWA’S HEAD BOY
A stark debt of gratitude will be owed to striker Shinzo Koroki by Urawa if they lift this year’s crown, on home soil, after November 24’s finale.
Koroki’s eight-goal ACL haul is six more than any team-mate. Half of this figure has come from his head – which is the competition’s leading figure.
This obvious threat adds a fascinating element to the tie.
Hilal full-backs Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Breik are offensive forces of nature. Especially on home soil when the value of gaining an early advantage is notable.
Will their usual bombs forward vacate space for wingers Fabricio and Kazuki Nagasawa to ping in the crosses that Koroki desires, or will the reins, instead, be put on the former-mentioned pair? Alternatively, would Al Shahrani’s and Al Breik’s adventure hem in Fabricio and Nagasawa?
It’s a tactical conundrum that Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu and combustible opposite number Tsuyoshi Otsuki – fined ¥1 million (Dh33,715) and internally suspended for one game after this month’s bust-up with Kashima Antlers’ Ryota Nagaki – must solve.
ALL EYES ON THE ATOMIC ANT
Goals should, again, be at a premium, even though leading marksmen Gomis and Koroki are present.
For Hilal, this problem has been accentuated by the summer decision to ditch Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo from the ACL’s four-player foreign quota for the knockouts and stick with exorbitantly paid Italy magician Giovinco.
This call made perfect sense at the time. But since then, Eduardo’s gone on to lead the 2019/20 SPL scoring charts with eight.
In all competitions, Giovinco’s inferior tally of four goals and three assists is nothing to get excited about.
The ex-Toronto FC and Juventus playmaker is now tasked with breaking down a determined Urawa defensive unit. They lead the way in ACL 2019 for fouls (203), defensive duels (857), interceptions (522) and, jointly, shots blocked (34).
Defensive midfielder Ewerton is also No1 for tackles (23) and duels won (89). He could be a scourge on Giovinco, who should, however, be buoyed by the fact his 24 ACL chances created is more than any other player on show.
Fine margins that define this intriguing contest.
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