Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab carry Saudi hopes into AFC Champions League quarterfinals

Special Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab carry Saudi hopes into AFC Champions League quarterfinals
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal ahead of the AFC Champions League round of 16 match against UAE’s Shabab Al-Ahli at the Al-Janoub Stadium in Al-Wakrah, south of Doha, Feb. 20, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 22 February 2023

Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab carry Saudi hopes into AFC Champions League quarterfinals

Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab carry Saudi hopes into AFC Champions League quarterfinals
  • A win for both in Thursday’s one-off matches will set up an all-Saudi semifinal on Sunday
  • Al-Hilal booked their last eight place with a 3-1 win over the UAE’s Shabab Al-Ahli

There have been plenty of big days in Saudi Arabian football in recent months and Thursday will be no different. Two teams from Riyadh are in action in the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League and, if Al-Shabab and Al-Hilal can overcome their opponents, then they will meet in what would be an epic all-Saudi Arabian semifinal clash on Sunday.

Al-Hilal are favorites in their big match. The title-holders are the defending Asian champions thanks to their unprecedented fourth win last time around and are looking to extend their own record and win continental crown number five. By contrast, the team standing in the way of the last four is Foolad, a side that have never reached this stage before.

Now the Iranians have to beat the most successful team in Asian history and one that earlier this month defeated the African champions and the South American title-holders on the way to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup. There, they lost to Real Madrid 5-3 in the final — a better result than Liverpool managed against the Spanish powerhouse on Tuesday.

Al-Hilal booked their last eight place with a 3-1 win over the UAE’s Shabab Al-Ahli on Monday. The victory, while fully deserved, was not completely comfortable.

“In the last match, we were very effective in scoring goals although we were not at our best,” said coach Ramon Diaz. “We understand that we have to play more aggressively and efficiently, especially in the midfield. The players agreed and are very motivated for the quarterfinal.”

With Peruvian international Andre Carrillo and Gustavo Cuellar ready to play and captain Salman Al-Faraj returning to fitness, the signs are good. “Foolad are very strong and will press,” said Diaz. “Their players combine well and have dynamism but our target will be to play at our level.”

There is a degree of uncertainty surrounding Foolad, however. After they defeated Al-Faisaly 1-0 on Monday to deny Saudi Arabia three teams in the last eight, head coach Javad Nekounam resigned. The former Iranian international, in charge of the club since 2019, gave no reason for his sudden departure but it could be that he is ready for the vacant Iran national team job. Assistant Hamidreza Rajabi has stepped up.

“I would like to thank my players for they have remained focused and are really determined to be at their best for the quarterfinal,” said Rajabi. “The (Al-Hilal) match is very tough for us because it is against the best team in the history of Asia, the defending champions and runners-up of the FIFA Club World Cup. However, we have not suffered any losses in the AFC Champions League and every team must know that when you play Foolad, you will have a tough match.”

While the continental form may be solid, domestically Foolad are sitting in mid-table and coming off the back of three straight defeats. It remains to be seen whether the coaching change inspires the team from Khuzestan to greater heights. They will need to be at their best against a side that loves winning in Asia.

On paper, Al-Shabab have a tougher task than their Riyadh rivals and take on one of West Asia’s strongest teams. Al-Duhail defeated Qatari rivals Al-Rayyan in a penalty shootout after two hours of football ended 1-1 on Sunday.

Coached by legendary Argentina striker Hernan Crespo, the team are top of the Qatar Stars League and won their group by eight points. With prolific forwards such as Michael Olunga and Almoez Ali, Al-Duhail have plenty of firepower, much more than FC Nasaf, the Uzbekistan team eliminated by Al-Shabab on Sunday.

The Riyadh giants were too good for the Central Asians as they ran out 2-0 winners but for a team that has kept six clean sheets in seven games so far in this tournament, the defense did look a little vulnerable. Yet Al-Shabab have plenty of talent throughout the side, are going well at home and are sitting level on points at the top of the table after four straight wins. This is an encounter that is too close to call, as coach Vicente Moreno pointed out.

“We have been at an excellent level domestically and the target is to reproduce our league form in the AFC Champions League,” the Spaniard said. “We are in the quarterfinals without having suffered any defeats and if we continue to play at a high level with total focus, we will be capable of winning.”

If so, then there is a chance of Al-Shabab meeting Al-Hilal — a Riyadh derby in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League. At a time when Saudi Arabian football is making international headlines almost every week, it would be another epic encounter.