AFC Champions League: Saudi’s Al-Hilal eye the prize again

THE very long AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Champions League 2022 is finally heading towards its conclusion, with the West region playing its round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals in a compressed schedule in Qatar. The two-legged final won’t happen until late April and early May, Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan from the eEast region clinched their place last August.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, who won many friends in the recent FIFA Club World Cup when they beat Brazilian side Flamengo before losing 5-3 to Real Madrid, are still involved and are hoping to retain the trophy they won in November 2021 when they beat South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. 

This season, they topped a group that included Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Istikol. Their round of 16 opponents, another UAE side, Shabab Al-Ahli, were beaten 3-1 with Al-Hilal’s goals coming from Nigerian Odion Ighalo, who had a loan spell with Manchester United, Luciano Vietto of Argentina (and briefly Fulham) and South Korean Jang Hyun-Soo.

In the quarter-final on February 23, they will play in Al-Wakrah against Iran’s Foolad, a team that has already disposed of two Saudi Arabian sides in the competition. Foolad, from Ahwaz in Khuzestan, are not having an outstanding season in 2022-23 and are languishing in mid-table. But they are enjoying their best ever Champions League run. Nevertheless, Al-Hilal are favourites to win through and to eventually reach their third final in four years. 

Al-Hilal are the most successful side in Saudi Arabia with 18 league titles and four Champions League victories. Fellow Riyadh club, Al-Nassr, currently making headlines due to their signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, have never won the Champions League but they have secured nine Saudi titles. They are drawing 20,000-plus crowds at present but the overall average in the Saudi League is only around a thousand more than 2021-22. It remains to be seen if CR7 stays the course in a league that is much lower quality than the top European competitions he has become accustomed to.

The other quarter final on February 23 is between Qatar’s Al-Duhail and Al-Shabab of Saudi Arabia, to be played in Doha. Al-Duhail are coached by former Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo and are top of the Qatar Stars League. They have the current top scorer in the AFC Champions League, the Belgian Edmilson Junior, in their ranks, who has netted eight goals so far. He was a substitute in Al-Duhail’s penalty shoot-out victory in the round of 16 against Qatari stable-mates Al-Rayyan. Al-Shabab are currently level on points at the top of the Saudi Pro League with Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, they won their round of 16 tie against Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. 

The winners of the two West region quarter-finals will complete their semi-final on February 26 with the two-legged final on April 29 and May 6. If Al-Hilal make the final, it will be a repeat of the 2019 AFC Champions League final. The competition started in March last year, so it has been a long road to Saitama, where the second leg will be played.

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