Football Tribe SEA Editor
The first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League final kicks off tonight, with Japan’s very own Urawa Red Diamonds traveling to the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh to take on Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal. It is the repeat of the 2017 ACL final, which Urawa won, and Al-Hilal are more than eager for some measure of revenge over the J.League side. Both Urawa and Al-Hilal have two ACL titles under their name and whoever wins this year’s final will equal South Korea’s Pohang Steelers’ record of 3 ACL titles and join them as the competition’s most successful club.
Al-Zaeem is how Al-Hilal fans called their team, which roughly translates as “The Boss.” And rightfully so – Al-Hilal have won 58 official titles, more than any club in Saudi Arabia, and they’re also the only club to have won 6 Asian titles – two ACLs, two Asian Cup Winners’ Cup titles, and two Asian Super Cup titles, the latter two competitions being defunct AFC competitions. Al-Hilal has been searching for a seventh Asian title and third ACL title and have reached two finals ever since their last ACL victory in 2000, however, they lost the 2014 final to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers and the aforementioned 2017 final to Urawa. This time, Al-Hilal are hoping that third time’s the charm.
In order to fulfill that, Al-Hilal has bolstered themselves quite considerably this year. Former Lyon, Swansea City, Marseille, and Galatasaray attacker Bafétimbi Gomis is in the Al-Zaeem ranks and with 10 goals he’s the current top scorer of this year’s ACL, a fact that Urawa’s backline, rallied by vice-captain Tomoaki Makino, must be wary about. Al-Hilal also has Sebastian Giovinco within their ranks, the former Juventus and Toronto FC player having made the most amount of chances in this year’s ACL. Their local stars are not to be underestimated as well – Al-Hilal’s midfield is run by three Saudi national team players, Salman Al-Faraj, Abdullah Otayf, and Mohamed Kanno, the latter two being interchangeable should Al-Hilal head coach Răzvan Lucescu employ a formation with two central midfielders. Saudi international Salem Al-Dawsari also provide Al-Hilal with some flare down the wings and last but not least, Syrian international Omar Kharbin is ready to tear defenses to shreds should Lucescu decide to call upon his talents. Lucescu himself has proven himself as the capable tactician – in his last job before Al-Hilal, he brought PAOK Thessaloniki to the 2018-19 Superleague Greece title, finishing the league as unbeaten champions. And he’s hungry for more silverware.
However, what Urawa lacked in individual talent and quality, they compensate it with their collectiveness. The Saitama-based side may have struggled massively in the domestic front – having flirted with relegation a couple of times this season as well as having the ignominy of being knocked out from the Emperor’s Cup at home by a fourth-tier club – but in the continental front they’ve shown enough spirit and determination to defy the odds. En route to the final, Urawa had taken on a number of teams whose quality is above them – Ulsan Hyundai, Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. But Tsuyoshi Otsuki’s men have shown that collective play and a well-oiled structured system could topple teams who relied too heavily on individuals. Urawa came back from the dead to dispose of Ulsan, having lost the first leg at home before turning the tables around and demolishing Ulsan in South Korea. Shanghai SIPG, the defending Chinese Super League champions, were eliminated thanks to away goals. And Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, current leaders of the CSL, were dispatched with relative ease. Makino provides a sense of calm and security from the back, passionately leading by example and rallying his team’s spirits when needed, while Shinzo Koroki, aging like fine wine, provides the threat and danger from the front with the equal amount of experience and wiseness that Makino has.
A number of Urawa players from that 2017 final are still at the club and their experience in these kinds of matches may give this Urawa side the edge needed to overcome this stern test. Daiki Hashioka is still 20 but has benefitted massively from the amount of experience around him this season and he is expected to be in the wings alongside the more experienced Takahiro Sekine by Tsuyoshi in Riyadh. First choice goalie Shusaku Nishikawa will be absent in the first leg, meaning that Haruki Fukushima is most likely to be thrown into the ring of fire tonight. Another veteran that Urawa has is Yuki Abe and with Takuya Aoki not yet fit, he might be featured in the midfield engine alongside the hardworking Brazilian that is Ewerton. Another Brazilian, Fabricio, is expected to work alongside Kazuki Nagasawa in providing Koroki the service that he needs, with the absence of Yuki Muto. With the fringe players featuring quite prominently in their recent 2-0 home defeat in the league to Kawasaki Frontale, expect Tsuyoshi to pull out most of his big guns for this match.
A trip to Riyadh can be quite intimidating at times, as described by then-Western Sydney Wanderers head coach Tony Popovic as he guided the Red and Black to their first continental title in 2014. Al-Hilal had hosted both the 2014 and 2017 finals at the King Fahd International Stadium, which provides a cauldron-like atmosphere that intimidates opponents. The King Saud University Stadium is much smaller, but that adds more to the intimidation factor as it lacks the running track that separates the fans from the pitch, allowing for a more fervent atmosphere. This, combined with the overall quality that Al-Hilal has, makes this an intimidating and stern test for Urawa. Tsuyoshi’s charges must be at their best in all times tonight if they hope to continue on their amazing Asian form and get something out of this tie to be brought back home to Saitama. It’s going to be a tough ride for Urawa in Riyadh, the toughest in their campaign so far even, but Urawa has shown that they can overcome a number of tough opposition on their way to the final, and they would be more than happy to do more of the same.