The road to an all Saudi Arabian semi-final in the AFC Champions League was left wide open as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr avoided each other in Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals.
Al-Hilal face Iranian giants Persepolis, while their neighbours play Al-Wahda of the UAE on Oct. 16.
In the eastern zone (the tournament is divided into two until the final) there is an all South Korean affair between defending champions Ulsan Horang-I and Jeonbuk Motors and a meeting between Pohang Steelers, also South Korean, and Nagoya Grampus of Japan.
Saudi Arabian fans will be thinking about a potentially titanic semi-final clash. Both teams would be favourites to win their quarter-final ties even if they were in the usual two-legged format. With the global pandemic however, the remaining ties will be single-game affairs and in the western zone they will all take place in Riyadh. There will never be a better chance of seeing Saudi hands on the trophy on Nov 23.
Al-Nassr will be especially happy, on paper at least, at meeting the weakest team in their half of the draw. After losing to Persepolis on penalties in the semi-final last year, there may have been some thoughts of revenge but the Iranian giants are a tough nut to crack. Al-Hilal know that, too, but have happier recent memories with a 6-2 aggregate win over the Reds in the 2017 semi-final.
October’s meeting should be just as memorable, however, and fit for any final. With the Asian Football Confederation suggesting that fans will be back in the stadiums for the quarter-finals, it should be quite an atmosphere. The one regret is that the Riyadh club will not be able to go to Tehran for the second leg with 100,000 fans in attendance at the legendary Azadi Stadium. Just having one game to play at home may increase Al-Hilal’s chances of progressing but the players are missing out on an incredible football experience.
Persepolis, bitter rivals of Esteghlal, the team Al-Hilal defeated 2-0 on Monday, will be hard to beat. The Reds have won the last five Iranian league titles, reached two of the last three Champions League finals and conceded just 14 goals last season. However, October’s match could favour Al-Hilal’s as the new Iranian season is yet to start and Persepolis may be a little rusty.
If that quarter-final is between Asian royalty, the other in the western zone is between two teams that have yet to be champions. The best Al-Nassr have managed is a runners-up spot in 1995 with Al-Wahda making the last four back in 2007. The Saudi side will be strong favourites against a team that finished mid-table in the UAE Pro League last year and have not set this tournament alight — so far at least. Al-Nassr have some of the best attacking talent in Asia and if coach Mano Menezes can get the team playing to its potential, then Henk ten Cate, his opposite number at Al-Wahda, will find it very difficult indeed.
Looking to the final and the likely Eastern zone opposition, many believe the winner of the Ulsan-Jeonbuk tie will make it through. Ulsan are the defending champions, on top of the K-League and a well-balanced outfit with a pleasing mixture of talented veterans and exciting youngsters. Jeonbuk, winners in 2006 and 2016, have lifted the K-League title in six of the past seven years and are still very much in this year’s race.
Pohang Steelers have, like Al-Hilal, three continental championships sitting in their trophy cabinet and would love to make it a record four. Unlike the Korean trio, with seven titles between them, Nagoya have yet to triumph in Asia. Hard to beat with a fine defence and an Australian goalkeeper in Mitch Langerak who breaks clean sheet records on a regular basis, they should not be underestimated in a knock-out format.