Days after losing 5-3 to Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal returns to its home continent to try and extend its recent dominance of the Asian Champions League in a second-round match against Shabab Al-Ahli of Dubai.
In 2019, Al-Hilal broke the eastern zone stranglehold of the tournament that had seen teams from Australia, China, South Korea and Japan winning every title but one from 2006 to 2018. The Riyadh club repeated the win in 2021, to become champion of Asia for a record fourth time.
This is still the 2022 edition as the eight teams from West Asia — the tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final — finished the group stage last April. The delay is due to the Champions League transitioning from its traditional March-to-November calendar to a European-style August-to-May schedule in the 2023-24 season..
Leonardo Jardim led Al-Hilal to its last Asian Champions League title in November 2021 but the Portuguese coach is now in charge of opponent Shabab Al-Ahli. The former Monaco boss knows that Monday’s game is going to be tough against a star-studded team.
“Al-Hilal has won the Asian title twice in three years and was preparing for that for six or seven years before that,” Jardim said. “This is a team with a lot of strong foreign players but also have many of the Saudi Arabian internationals who played at the World Cup. Hilal is always a strong contender in Asia but we have improved and are challenging at home, too.”
Al-Hilal has former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo, Peru international Andre Carrillo and Argentina’s Luciano Vietto as well as 12 of Saudi Arabia’s World Cup roster that made headlines at the World Cup in Qatar last year with a group-stage upset win over eventual champion Argentina.
The 18-time Saudi league champion is just one of three teams from the country in the knockout stages. Riyadh rival Al-Shabab takes on Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi, and Al-Faisaly meets Foolad of Iran.
The remaining match in the round is an all-Qatar encounter as Al-Rayyan takes on Al-Duhail, coached by former Argentina international Hernan Crespo.
After Qatar’s three losses out of three at the World Cup that the country hosted in November and December, it is a chance for national team stars such as Almoez Ali and Karim Boudiaf to restore international reputations.
The winners of the four second-round matches in the western zone will move forward to the quarterfinals on Feb.. 23. The semifinal is scheduled for three days later. The victor will then take on Urawa Reds of Japan in a two-legged final in April.
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