For the second time in three years, Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds stand in the way of Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and long-awaited success in the AFC Champions League.
The Reds painfully prevailed in 2017’s two-legged final, largely on the back of a 1-1 opening draw in Riyadh. They reconvene in the same city, but at King Saud University Stadium, on Saturday for this year’s opener in the continental decider.
Expectation weighs heavily on Bafetimbi Gomis, Sebastian Giovinco and Co for Hilal. The Kingdom’s most-decorated club desperately desire an end for their 19-year wait to be called the continent’s finest once more, while lob-sided recent history means west Asia last took home the trophy in 2011.
For Urawa, memories of a wretched J1 League campaign will be erased by a third ACL triumph. They currently sit a lowly 11th, five points off the relegation play-off but with two games extra played.
It is not hyperbole to say this fixture means absolutely everything to Hilal.
Claims to be the continent’s premier side have started to ring hollow, solely because of an agonising failure to add to 1991 and 2000’s Asian Club Championship triumphs. Revered ex-Benfica and Sporting Lisbon boss Jorge Jesus was even staggeringly dismissed last January because of a refusal to commit to the complete 2019 ACL programme.
The perplexing inability to swat aside Australian minnows Western Sydney Wanderers in a one-sided 2014 final particularly rankles. A different kind of frustration is reserved for 2017’s bout with Urawa.
Hilal were frustrated by the then J1 League runners-up in the opening 1-1 draw, where they dominated possession (68 per cent/32 per cent) and attempts (20/6). They were eventually put out of their misery by outstanding Brazilian forward Rafael Silva’s solitary strike at Saitama Stadium 2002, shortly after Salem Al Dawsari’s reckless late dismissal.
Significant pressure to make amends will be present at a sold-out and partisan King Saud. Urawa’s recent domestic travails only add to this constricting clamour for opening victory.
Hilal have, disconcertingly, lost two of three home knockout ties in this edition. A sole victory in the quarter-finals versus Ittihad owed much to Assaf Al Qarni’s combustion in goal.
Their steadfast opponents, meanwhile, have been defeated just once in eight 2019 ACL trips. They impressively conquered Fabio Cannavaro’s star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande 1-0 in the semi-finals.
These are unwelcome statistics for Hilal as in 11 years of two-legged finals, all five home teams held in the first leg went on to lose. Conversely, all six home first-leg winners triumphed overall.
URAWA’S HEAD BOY
A stark debt of gratitude will be owed to striker Shinzo Koroki by Urawa if they lift this year’s crown, on home soil, after November 24’s finale.
Koroki’s eight-goal ACL haul is six more than any team-mate. Half of this figure has come from his head – which is the competition’s leading figure.
This obvious threat adds a fascinating element to the tie.
Hilal full-backs Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Breik are offensive forces of nature. Especially on home soil when the value of gaining an early advantage is notable.
Will their usual bombs forward vacate space for wingers Fabricio and Kazuki Nagasawa to ping in the crosses that Koroki desires, or will the reins, instead, be put on the former-mentioned pair? Alternatively, would Al Shahrani’s and Al Breik’s adventure hem in Fabricio and Nagasawa?
It’s a tactical conundrum that Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu and combustible opposite number Tsuyoshi Otsuki – fined ¥1 million (Dh33,715) and internally suspended for one game after this month’s bust-up with Kashima Antlers’ Ryota Nagaki – must solve.
ALL EYES ON THE ATOMIC ANT
Goals should, again, be at a premium, even though leading marksmen Gomis and Koroki are present.
For Hilal, this problem has been accentuated by the summer decision to ditch Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo from the ACL’s four-player foreign quota for the knockouts and stick with exorbitantly paid Italy magician Giovinco.
This call made perfect sense at the time. But since then, Eduardo’s gone on to lead the 2019/20 SPL scoring charts with eight.
In all competitions, Giovinco’s inferior tally of four goals and three assists is nothing to get excited about.
The ex-Toronto FC and Juventus playmaker is now tasked with breaking down a determined Urawa defensive unit. They lead the way in ACL 2019 for fouls (203), defensive duels (857), interceptions (522) and, jointly, shots blocked (34).
Defensive midfielder Ewerton is also No1 for tackles (23) and duels won (89). He could be a scourge on Giovinco, who should, however, be buoyed by the fact his 24 ACL chances created is more than any other player on show.
Fine margins that define this intriguing contest.
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Revered former Ajax, Al Jazira and Al Wahda coach Henk ten Cate has cancelled retirement for the second time since May 2018, taking the reins at fallen Saudi Professional League giants Al Ittihad.
Ten Cate, 64, declined to renew his Clarets contract after he led them to third place in the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League and into the AFC Champions League knockouts for the first time since 2007. The ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant had been tempted back into the game by them in December 2018, following a previous decision to call time on his 28-year managerial career when exiting Jazira as an icon following fourth place at the 2017 Club World Cup and shock top-flight title glory for 2016/17.
A sizeable fresh challenge now awaits at King Abdullah Sports City, on a deal which runs until the end of this season with an option to renew. The crisis-addled Tigers ditched Chilean Jose Luis Sierra – for the second time in 17 months – in October, with two subsequent SPL losses under caretaker Mohammed Al Abdali leaving them one point and one place outside the relegation places.
“Al Ittihad’s media centre announces the contract with Dutch coach Henk Ten Cate to train the first team,” said an official statement to announce the Jeddah side’s fourth permanent appointment since May 2018. “The contract runs to the end of the season, with the option of a renewal for another season.
“For his part, President Mr Anmar bin Abdullah Al Ha’ili confirmed that the decision to contract with coach Ten Cate came after a trade-off between a number of training files, with Ten Cate being found as the most appropriate to lead the team in the current stage.
“This is because he is used to the atmosphere of competition in our area after working in the UAE.”
Ten Cate’s debut in the dugout should be Friday’s King’s Cup opener against lower-league Al Riyadh.
Another decade of Saudi Professional League-action will soon come to a close.
The bare statistics show the usual names – bar Al Fateh’s miraculous 2012/13 upset for the ages – of Al Hilal (three), Al Nassr (three), Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Shabab enjoying title success.
But this hardly scratches the surface. Here are some of the key talking points from 10 years of elite Middle Eastern action:
PROGRESS, AT A COST?
A tension between grand ambitions and domestic responsibilities defined the Kingdom’s top flight throughout the latter part of this era.
Should the SPL act, first, as incubator for one of Asia’s great national team? A repeat of the 12-year absence from World Cups recorded between 2006 and 2018, plus successive group-stage exits at the 2011 and 2015 Asian Cups, cannot be tolerated at a time when global perceptions of Saudi potency are critical.
Or should it be fully engaged in promulgating the Saudi Vision 2030 principles that underpin the country’s fresh outreaching policies and garner renewed interest – from home and abroad – in the competition? If this is the overriding priority, attracting the likes of big-money foreigners, such as Hilal’s ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis, becomes essential.
The abiding message from this decade is how taxing it is to twin these two aforementioned aims.
2019/20’s ongoing average attendance of 9,540 is the largest of the decade, while the league claims approximately 90 per cent of Saudis now watch videos on their mobile each month with a record 1.8 million football fans streaming last season’s Riyadh derby between Hilal and Nassr. The SPL also ranked third on Twitter in 2018/19 among global football leagues for conversation and interaction, with more than 80m tweets made by 40m accounts.
But missteps in the nascent months of Herve Renard’s contemporary reign with the Green Falcons, a spell that contains only a miserly five points from three World Cup 2022 second-round qualifiers, has reignited debate about a lack of opportunity.
This is where nuanced application of the foreign quota is crucial – and telling.
2016/17’s opening day, when the SPL last utilised the AFC’s four non-Saudis rule, featured an average of 8.6 indigenous players per team. By 2018/19’s high-water mark of eight foreigners, on the back of the previous year’s game-changing $340m injection by the General Sports Authority, this figure reduced to 4.8.
The squad that roared towards the last World Cup has experienced game-time being rapidly stripped away since qualification was achieved in September 2017.
No wonder results and performances have, subsequently, dipped – most egregiously with the shameful opening 5-0 defeat to hosts Russia at the summer tournament.
At the same moment, however, interest inside or outside the Kingdom has never been greater in the SPL. The bold, attention-grabbing blueprint of the Turki Al Sheikh-era at the GSA worked wonders, in that regards.
An unprecedented three of 2019’s four AFC Champions League quarter-finalists came from Saudi. This was in no small part to the sterling efforts of record-breaking Nassr striker Abderazzak Hamdallah, Hilal’s Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco and Al Ittihad’s electric Brazilian forward Romarinho.
The middle ground remains elusive as ever.
AL SOMAH STANDS OUT
Living legends have graced the nation’s grounds.
Brazil playmaker Thiago Neves and Sweden winger Christian Wilhelmsson heralded the dawn of a brave new era. Hilal team-mates Mohammad Al Shalhoub and Yasser Al Qahtani, plus Ahli midfielder Taisir Al Jassim, proudly represent the brilliance of Saudi Arabia stars, while Gomis and Hamdallah headline 2018’s flood of elite arrivals.
Among an exalted field, one name, however, stands out.
Omar Al Somah arrived at Ahli as a virtual unknown in July 2014. An uncommon skill set has witnessed the 30-year-old become an icon.
He is imbued with a predator’s desire, hulking frame of a heavyweight boxer, delicate touch with both feet, aerial ability of an NBA star and eye for the spectacular. This mix made him destined to earn the moniker ‘Syrian Ibrahimovic’.
The statuesque striker became the immortal inspiration behind 2015/16’s first SPL crown in 32 years for a club, rather optimistically, nicknamed ‘Fortress of Trophies’. Memorable moments along the way included a hat-trick versus Nassr, plus trio against Al Raed upon his return from a ban.
Down the stretch, he would score at least once in all of their last eight matches. Critically, this included a double against Hilal which ensured their great rival finished second.
His collection now stands at 108 goals in 114 SPL run-outs, and counting, plus he’s a three-time top scorer.
For ability, impact and longevity, Al Somah is unmatched.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS
Many things are afforded to coaches in Saudi – time is not one of them.
Only last Saturday, the No1 trending topic on Saudi Twitter was #sackGross after Christian’s third spell at Ahli began with an awful 2-1 loss at Al Hazem.
An image of capricious club owners has been reinforced, rather than weakened, this decade. Mountains of extra money have also exacerbated their endemic ‘hire and fire’ culture.
These choices have ramifications far beyond direct results and a coach’s job security.
An average 12.8 permanent tacticians have departed Saudi clubs per season during competition via the sack, resignation or mutual consent from 2010/11-2018/19. For added context, the competition only grew to 16 teams from 14 in the last of these campaigns.
This number has also been significantly inflated by 2017/18’s 16 and last term’s record 20 departures.
For 2019/20, Ahli’s Branko Ivankovic and Al Wehda’s Mario Cvitanovic were hired in the summer and sacked by mid-September. Promoted Damac’s Mohammed Kouki, Fateh’s Fathi Al Jabal and Ittihad’s Jose Luis Sierra have followed them to the departure lounge.
This tally even by Asian standards is remarkable. The Chinese Super League, for example, averaged 7.8 per season from 2011-19 (always 16 teams) and the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League only 7.6 (12 teams from 2010-12 and 17/18, 14 teams otherwise).
Avowed SPL aspirations to become one of the top-10 leagues in the world also mean comparisons with European giants are pertinent. Even though the Premier League (6.8), Serie A (12.3) and La Liga (9.9) all contained 20 outfits throughout the studied period, their average exits per season were lower than the SPL’s.
This standout managerial churn in the Kingdom has extensive repercussions.
The $340m injection from two years ago also included essential, and belated, payments to FIFA for outstanding transfer fees and wages, plus compensation claims. These arrears had precluded the likes of Nassr and Ittihad – who alone owed $82m – from competing in the ACL.
This wanton wastage ensured sizeable sums being splurged on players that are essential to one manager, and expendable to another. Ittihad during 2018/19’s living nightmare made 24 signings and sanctioned 34 exits, plus hired Ramon Diaz, Slaven Bilic and Sierra – for a second stint in eight months – as permanent coaches.
Ukraine legend Serhiy Rebrov was cut loose from Ahli, at huge cost, after the 2017/18 title was narrowly lost. World Cup 2006 winning captain Fabio Cannavaro lasted from October 2015-February 2016 at dysfunctional Nassr, while last term saw Hilal lure Zoran Mamic back to the Kingdom from Al Ain and subsequently dismiss him after 16 unsatisfactory fixtures.
These choices deny consistency in tactics, training and opportunities. They also continually put the brakes on an, ostensibly, upwardly mobile competition.