April ended with Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr getting out of their groups in the AFC Champions League, but it was a close-run thing for both. The Riyadh giants have since added to their squads and have the firepower to get past Iranian opposition into the last eight of the continental competition.
Al-Hilal takes on Esteghlal on Monday, with Al-Nassr meeting Tractor a day later.
Esteghlal needs no introduction to Al-Hilal fans and the Tehran giant perhaps presents a happy omen. The two teams met in the group stage of the 2019 tournament, with each winning at home and the Saudi team going on to win a third continental championship later in the year.
Al-Hilal has been going well in the Saudi Professional League, with two wins and a draw, though the performances are not yet where they should be. A lack of fluency won’t be helped by the recent international break. With the club supplying no less than nine players to the national team — they joined up with their clubmates on Saturday after being given a few days off — Saudi Arabia’s games are a source of stress for coach Leonardo Jardim.
The Portuguese boss, preparing for his first game in the tournament, is already without quietly efficient midfielder Abdullah Otayf, who is preparing to head to Spain to treat an injury suffered in Saudi Arabia’s win over Vietnam on Sep. 2. Captain Salman Al-Faraj has been recovering from a short illness and should play, while Salem Al-Dawsari is fit again after a slight knock, though young midfielder Saad Al-Nasser is out.
Al-Hilal still has plenty of Saudi internationals, as well as a top-class foreign contingent. Unlike in the SPL, where seven foreigners can play, clubs are limited to four in the Champions League, one of which must be Asian. That spot is taken by the club’s Mr. Dependable, South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo. Brazilian playmaker Matheus Pereira will be looking to create chances for formidable striking duo Moussa Marega and Bafetimbi Gomis, top scorer in the tournament in 2019. Jardim has been playing a 4-4-2 formation so far in a league dominated by 4-2-3-1.
“Every game at this stage of a tournament is going to be tough and Esteghlal will be no different,” Jardim said before departing for Dubai, where the one-off game will take place. “We have been working hard, however, and are looking forward to the challenge and testing ourselves against the best teams in Asia.”
While Al-Hilal is getting into gear domestically, the Iranian league finished in July and, with just two cup games since, Esteghlal may be a little undercooked. Fans are looking forward, however, to seeing new signing Jafar Salmani make his first appearance since the winger returned to Iran from a spell in Portugal. There were concerns at the club when reserve goalkeeper Alireza Rezaei contracted COVID-19, but the virus does not seem to have spread.
The pandemic has, however, cast a shadow over Al-Nassr’s meeting with Tractor. The Iranian club has forwards Mohammed Abbaszadeh and Ali Fathi injured, as well as midfielder Mohammed Khorram. Peyman Babaei is suspended, Sayad Kokabi has terminated his contract and, furthermore, two other players have tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the club looking very thin indeed and struggling to field a squad of the required 18 players.
According to the club, it first wrote to the Asian Football Confederation asking for the game to be postponed and then wrote again asking if it could fill the bench with youth players who had not been registered before the Sep. 7 deadline. The AFC has acknowledged receiving just the first letter and has denied the request to delay. What will happen remains to be seen, but the Iranians have said they will be in Qatar on Tuesday.
There is extra uncertainty for the Riyadh club as its opponent has just changed coach. Faraz Kamalvand has been replaced by 65-year-old Firouz Karimi for his third spell in charge of Tractor. Back in 1993, he led Pas Tehran to the Asian Club Championship, defeating Al-Shabab in the final.
He has to prepare to meet an Al-Nassr team that has won two out of its first three league matches this season, but has a coach in Mano Menezes who is under pressure. The former boss of Brazil received a vote of confidence from the board last week but his fate may depend on performances in the Champions League. He will be without star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah, who is suspended along with Ali Lajami and Abdullah Madu.
There is better news for Menezes in that striker Vincent Aboubakar has returned from international duty with Cameroon injury-free and Talisca, the new Brazilian attacking midfielder who has started the season impressively, is also fit.
With the firepower they possess, both Saudi teams will be expected to progress past the teams that finished third and fourth in Iran last season, but there have been plenty of unpredictable results in the AFC Champions League already this season. Neither coach nor club wants to crash out with the final coming slowly into view.