On Tuesday, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal meet in the semifinal of the AFC Champions League in Riyadh. Thanks to the fallout from the coronavirus disease pandemic, the game will be a one-legged affair instead of the usual two legs. This means the last four tie will be over on the night, and with the final also being held in the capital next month (against Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea), this is a great opportunity for the continental championship to return to Saudi Arabia.
Here are five talking points ahead of this eagerly-awaited game:
1. Al-Nassr need to beat history to beat Al-Hilal
While this is a first ever meeting in Asia, there have been a number of knockout clashes between the two rivals over the years and Al-Hilal have usually come out on top.
One of the biggest non-league meetings between these two teams came back in the final of the 2015 King’s Cup. On that June day, Riyadh decamped to Jeddah and there were more than 60,000 packed into the newly-built King Abdullah Sports City Stadium.
It was a tense affair that ended goalless after 90 minutes. Early in extra-time, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi put Al-Nassr ahead, and the Yellows were on course for the cup with the 120 minutes almost up. But then came a last-gasp equalizer from Mohammed Jahfali to send the Al-Hilal fans wild.
Both teams scored their first six penalties in the shootout. Salman Al-Faraj, the current Al-Hilal skipper, scored number seven but then Shaye Sharahili missed his, and that was that. Al-Hilal also beat their rivals in the 2020 King’s Cup final.
The pair have met in the Crown Prince Cup final twice, with one victory each. Al-Hilal also defeated Al-Nassr at the semifinal of the 1995 Arab Champions League and the final of the 2000 Arab Cup Winners Cup.
2. A Portuguese battle of wits and emotion
There has already been plenty of attention in Portugal paid to the quarterfinals of the Champions League due to the fact that two of their coaches are in charge of the Saudi pair. Al-Hilal hired Leonardo Jardim in June and Al-Nassr appointed Pedro Emanuel, a lesser-known coach, at the start of this month.
It means a Portuguese head-to-head in the semifinal. Jardim has started to get to grips with this Al-Hilal team and is trying to get all of his attacking talent into a balanced line-up. Emanuel just has one game under his belt — though it was an impressive 5-1 thrashing of Al-Wahda of the UAE.
There is a strong streak of pragmatism among some Portuguese coaches and the key to this tie may well rest on which boss can instil a sense of normality and calm among his players. The atmosphere is sure to be frenetic and loud. The team that settles first may end up triumphant at the last.
3. It could be the Talisca vs Pereira show
There will be plenty of top-class talent on display on Tuesday but mouths around Asia will be watering at the prospect of two attacking midfielders, Al-Nassr’s Talisca and Al-Hilal’s Matheus Pereira, lining up against each other.
Both have made their mark in the league season so far and have established themselves as two of the best players in Asia, never mind the Saudi Professional League. Talisca has been a little more flamboyant, with blond hair, physical presence and delicious goals from outside the area. Pereira’s influence is not quite as spectacular but he pulls the strings in attack and increasingly sets the tempo of all the games he appears in.
The pair are both potential match-winners, and whichever one shines the brightest could end up being the one that pushes his team towards victory.
4. It is hard to say who wants this more
Both sets of fans will be desperate to win this match — that goes without saying — but it is harder to say who are more desperate to lift the trophy.
You cannot talk to any Al-Hilal fan for more than a minute or two before being reminded that the club have won three Asian championships, more than any other on the continent except Pohang Steelers. There is a huge amount of pride at the record in Asia and fans would love nothing more than to become the only team on the continent to have won four championships. Asia is woven into Al-Hilal’s DNA.
Al-Nassr have yet to win one, though they reached the final back in 1995. That failure rankles more when your neighbours have been so successful. For the Yellows, winning the Champions League will mean many things and not just defeating their rivals along the way. It will mean being the best in Asia and moving out of the shadow of Al-Hilal’s continental exploits. And it will also mean that whatever happens for the rest of this season, it will already be a success.
5. It should be remembered that this is not the final
It is tempting to see this as a clash for the ages, a semifinal between bitter city rivals, but whoever wins will not get a trophy. There will still be a game left to play and that will come against a battle-hardened South Korean team.
Saudi Arabia has a fine record in Asian club competitions but cannot match the exploits of its counterparts from the K-League. In the other semifinal Ulsan Horang-i, defending champions and winners in 2012 (against Al-Ahli in the final), will take on Pohang Steelers, three-time champions who defeated Al-ittihad in the 2009 final. Ulsan beat Jeonbuk Motors, another Korean team, in the quarterfinals, who lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2016.
These are teams that are used to winning in Asia and will not bat an eyelid at playing in front of a passionate Riyadh crowd on Nov. 23. After the semifinal, there will still be work to do.