Al Hilal are, potentially, 90 minutes away from ending their agonising 19-year wait to be crowned Asian kings once again.
Peru winger Andre Carrillo’s 60th-minute header on November 9 earned a 1-0 first-leg lead in the 2019 AFC Champions League final against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds at an uproarious King Saud University Stadium. The Saudi Professional League giants must now hope they do not pay the price for a plethora of wasted opportunities, plus some controversial officiating, when battle resumes at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday – the venue of 2017’s harrowing 1-0 loss to the same opponent.
Here is Sport360’s preview:
CALLING DOWN THE AGES
Hilal, undoubtedly fuelled by the pain of this decade’s prior twin deciding defeats, subjected their East Asian visitors to intense pressure from kick-off in Riyadh.
Possession was 71 per cent/29 per cent, they made 465 more passes – Saudi centre midfielder Abdullah Otayf, alone, made 105 at an accuracy of 98 per cent – and the attempts count read 21/2. Figures that better resemble a contest between a title chaser and relegation candidate, than a grandstand continental decider.
Domestically speaking, the latter scenario actually rings true with Hilal on top of the 2019/20 SPL and Urawa facing the very real threat of a first demotion from the J1 League in 20 years.
The chase for an overbearing advantage, however, remained unfulfilled.
Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco saw a first-half attempt mystifyingly cleared off the goal line by the diligent Takuya Aoki and centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi managed to slice a volley, on the stretch, into the packed stands from point-blank range.
Into the second half and an errant linesman’s flag erased a perfectly legal tap-in from tricky Saudi Arabia wide man Salem Al Dawsari. A raw wound that will be wrenched open by any setback in Saitama.
This is where Hilal’s unique – and troublesome – relationship with the tournament could come into play.
The Crescent proclaim themselves, with plentiful justification, as Asia’s premier outfit. They have not, however, won the ACL since its 2002/03 inauguration.
Showpiece reversals in 2014 to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers and 2017 to Urawa are bound with bountiful anguish. Jibes from Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad about the last decade’s back-to-back triumphs continue to rankle.
Fears about another loss remain real. Not even the reality that South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2004 are the only contender to win the first leg and fail to lift the trophy in 12 two-legged editions can calm them.
Hilal, as an institution, are obsessed with correcting these perceived wrongs. Such fervent emotion may cloud the fact that all available evidence points to an innate superiority over this Urawa.
A DIFFERENT URAWA?
The relief was palpable from the Reds.
Overwhelming dominance from star-studded opponent – that contained 10-goal 2019 ACL top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, ex-Juventus creator Giovinco and the electric Al Dawsari – was not reflected in the scoreline.
“Al Hilal had a lot of chances, but we conceded just one goal, so for me 1-0 was a good result for us,” said Japan centre-back Tomoaki Makino to www.the-afc.com.
“There is a huge time difference and by the time the second half started it was something like 2:00 AM in Japan, so it was a bit hard for us to keep going at the same intensity as the first half.
“But it was also our plan to limit the damage and we were somewhat satisfied to walk away with the score at 1-0 going into a home second leg.”
Makino and his team-mates are left with a contest that is intriguingly balanced. The question now is whether Urawa have the wherewithal to make the most of this lifeline.
They, truly, are a side with two faces.
Fabio Cannavaro’s Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese Super League holders Shanghai SIPG and K League 1 pacesetters Ulsan Hyundai have all been downed on the way to this juncture.
Grit was key to making it this far. Their averages per 90 minutes, according to Wyscout.com, for the following factors are far in advance of Hilal’s; shots against (11.5/8.9), shots blocked (4/1.7), defensive duels (68.2/51.6), interceptions (41.5/35.2) and fouls (15.6/12.2).
With the Crescent only failing to score once on their last eight Asian away trips, these strengths must be exhibited.
Yet they could still become the ACL’s first three-time winners and be relegated from the J1 League. Only five points separates them from the end-of-season relegation play-off, a gap made far-less comfortable by the fact they’ve only two fixtures left compared to their fellow strugglers’ three.
Within their ranks, veteran striker Shinzo Koroki has eight goals in 13 ACL matches this year and Porto-owned midfielder Ewerton has, at times, impressed. It is telling though that Japan have not called upon any of their number since June 9’s friendly versus El Salvador.
Former Bayer Leverkusen playmaker Robson Ponte was the leading man in 2007’s continental victory against Iran’s Sepahan, while fellow Brazilian Rafael Silva’s quality in front of goal made the difference versus Hilal two years ago.
No one in the current squad can match this individual quality. Another rousing collective effort must be conjured to defy both the odds and recent history.
Only traumas of the past can stop this Hilal side from maximising their talents and lifting the hallowed ACL trophy.
They have everything in their armoury to blow this sub-par Urawa away.
Urawa Red Diamonds 0 (0) v 2 (3) Al Hilal
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