Al Hilal players warm up during a training session ahead of their ACL quarter-final match against Al Ittihad.
Many similarities but a world of contrasts separate Al Ittihad and Al Hilal as the former play hosts in the first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday.
The two sides boast a proud tradition in Asian football, with nine continental titles and 18 appearances in the AFC Champions League knock-out stage between them. Nevertheless, Tuesday marks the first time Al Ittihad and Al Hilal face off in the competition.
The 2018-19 season could not have been more contrasting for the two rivals.
An unprecedentedly disappointing campaign for Al Ittihad ended on a relative high as they survived what would have been a first relegation in their history.
While in Riyadh, Al Hilal looked destined for Saudi Pro League glory before slipping in the final miles and surrendering the title to rivals Al Nassr.
Last week, both teams started their domestic season with a win, before turning their attention to Tuesday’s quarter-final –– a third appearance at this stage for Al Hilal in the past five years and a first for the hosts since 2014.
Since the re-appointment of coach Jose Luis Sierra, Al Ittihad got back their attacking style, cruising to the 2019 AFC Champions League knock-out stage with 13 goals scored. A record only Al Wahda bettered in the group stage. They then brushed aside Zobahan in the round of 16, winning the two ties 2-1 and 4-3.
On the other side, coach Razvan Lucescu is still feeing his way around the King Saud University Stadium, where he has been at the helm for two months. The early signs, however, have been positive with a 4-3 aggregate win over Al Ahli sending them through to the Continental quarter-final.
With five goals to his name this campaign, Brazilian striker Romarinho stands out as the danger man for the two-time AFC Champions League winners. The former El Jaish and Al Jazira forward has scored 18 goals in the competition over five seasons, more than any other player present at King Abdullah Sport City Stadium on Tuesday.
In turn, Al Hilal’s Bafetimbi Gomis’ seven goals make him the top scorer amongst players still active in the competition.
The Frenchman had established himself as a fan favourite in his first season in Riaydh with 21 goals in 30 league appearances and is now looking to guide them to that ever-elusive AFC Champions League title.
Meanwhile, in a repeat of the 2017 semi-final, Chinese champions Shanghai SIPG will welcome two-time AFC Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds to Shanghai Stadium for the first leg of their 2019 quarter-final on Tuesday.
The sides met four times in the 2017 edition, exchanging wins in the Group Stage before their meeting in the last four saw Urawa edge the semi-final 2-1 on aggregate as they went on to lift their second AFC Champions League title.
Last year, Shanghai SIPG were eliminated by a Japanese team for a second consecutive tournament when they were defeated by eventual champions Kashima Antlers, while Urawa failed to defend their title after they were unable to qualify for the 2018 competition.
It has been a tough campaign so far for last year’s Chinese Super League winners, with the journey to the last eight punctuated with several tight games that could have gone either way.
Indeed, their opener set the tone for the 2019 edition with a last minute penalty from Brazilian forward Hulk needed to secure all three points against Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale.
A 1-0 defeat away at Ulsan Hyundai followed before three consecutive draws left Shanghai SIPG needing a win over Ulsan in the final Matchday to secure their place in the Knockout Stage.
And they did it in impressive fashion, as star midfielder Oscar netted a hat-trick in a comprehensive 5-0 win. Their reward was a Round of 16 meeting with another Korea Republic side, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, and a back-and-forth tie saw Shanghai SIPG come out the victors on penalties. When it comes to key names, it’s hard to look beyond the Brazilian duo of Oscar and Hulk who have once again excelled in the AFC Champions League.
The former has topped virtually all the major attacking statistics by some margin, while the latter has scored some stunning goals and been a true force of nature.
After defeating Al Hilal to win the 2017 edition, Urawa were absent last year but returned in style this time round, with a dominant 3-0 win over Buriram United in their Group G opener.
A hard-fought draw away at Beijing FC was a decent result and, while back-to-back defeats to Jeonbuk temporarily slowed their momentum, a 2-1 victory away at Buriram set up a winners-take-all game at Saitama Stadium against the Chinese capital city club.
And it was Urawa who came out on top after goals from Kazuki Nagasawa, Yuki Muto and Shinzo Koroki sealed a 3-0 win, as the Reds progressed as runners-up to Jeonbuk.
A 2-1 defeat at home to Ulsan meant Urawa travelled as underdogs for their last 16 second leg tie, but a Koroki brace and Ewerton’s late strike saw the J.League side produce a stunning turnaround to win 3-0 at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium.
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