Al-Hilal out to prove their AFC Champions league pedigree in Al-Ain clash

Special Al-Hilal out to prove their AFC Champions league pedigree in Al-Ain clash
Al-Hilal, seen here in a training session, face UAE's Al-Ain looking to go one stage better than last year and win the AFC Champions League. (Photo: Twitter - @AlHilal_EN)
Updated 12 February 2018

Al-Hilal out to prove their AFC Champions league pedigree in Al-Ain clash

Al-Hilal out to prove their AFC Champions league pedigree in Al-Ain clash

LONDON: There is much more than three points at stake in the opening match of the 2018 AFC Champions League meeting between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Al-Ain of the UAE in Riyadh on Tuesday.
For Al-Hilal it is an opportunity to show the strength in depth of a squad that has been beset by injuries while Al-Ain can avenge a humiliating defeat suffered just five months ago. And perhaps most importantly of all, there is a chance for both to gauge whether they have what it takes to go all the way in the continental competition.
These rivals have tasted defeat in the last two finals, Al-Ain in 2016 and Al-Hilal in November. Now they are desperate to go one step further to add to the continental titles that last went to Riyadh in 2000 and Al-Ain three years later. Beating one of the best teams in Asia in the opening round would at least hint that they are on the right track..
“We know that Al-Ain are a very good team,” said Al-Hilal coach Ramon Diaz. “We will have to be at our best but these are the games that you have to look forward to as players and coach.”
Favourites to progress from a group also containing Al-Rayyan of Qatar and Iran’s Esteghlal, the Saudi and UAE giants could meet in the latter stages as they did in the quarter-finals of the 2017 edition.
With the first leg in UAE ending 0-0, Al-Hilal brushed aside Al-Ain in September’s return match with a 3-0 win. All three goals came courtesy of the team’s Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo.
Unfortunately, the attacking midfielder picked up a serious injury in the first leg of the final loss to Urawa Reds and is still out. Had that not been the case then the trophy could now be residing in Riyadh rather than Saitama. Also injured is star forward and reigning Asian Player of the Year Omar Khribin and midfielder Salman Al-Faraj. International winger Salem Al-Dawsari is on loan at Spanish club Villarreal.
Despite the injuries, coach Diaz has plenty of back-up especially in attack due to the recent signings of Moroccan marksman Achraf Bencharki, who scored a fine and late debut goal in Friday’s 2-2 draw with Al-Nassr and Ezequiel Cerutti of Argentina. If these two find their continental feet quickly then the firepower is there. There is also good news in the shape of Nawaf Al-Abed. The playmaker has returned to Riyadh from treatment in France and is back training.
“We know each other well but there have been changes in both teams since we last met,” said Ismail Ahmed, Al-Ain’s veteran center-back. “The circumstances surrounding this game are also very different from the last time. This is not the quarter-final and the two teams will approach it differently.”
It could be a cagey encounter. Neither team will want to start with a defeat, especially with Al-Hilal at home in front of an expected sell-out 25,000 crowd for a first game at the King Saud University stadium where the fans will be closer to the pitch than is often the case in Asian stadiums.
Al-Ain, like their Saudi opponents, are leading the way at home. Star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, who missed Friday’s 3-0 win over Emirates, is expected to feature in Riyadh but there are some less familiar faces for Al-Hilal fans to watch out for.
Hussein El-Shahat is one. The Egyptian has arrived on-loan but has scored six goals in five games so far in the UAE league. Add that to the recruitment of UAE star striker Ahmed Khalil and Abdulrahman’s predeccessor as AFC player of the Year in 2015, then this version of Al-Ain has a little more firepower than last season’s version especially with Swedish striker Marcus Berg in fine form.
Despite the rivalry between these two heavyweights, the test they provide each other should give both coaches an idea of his team’s respective strengths and weaknesses going forward over what should be a long continental campaign. We may get an idea of just how long on Tuesday.