Hilal, Urawa gear up for Asia’s ultimate club prize


RIYADH —Premier soccer club Al Hilal hosts Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the AFC Champions League on Saturday — a repeat of the 2017 — as they jostle for Asia’s ultimate club prize.

Two years ago, the two sides finished 1-1 at King Fahd International Stadium, before Urawa snatched a 1-0 victory in the return leg in Saitama to lift the AFC Champions League trophy for the second time in their history.

Al Hilal have since moved base to King Saud University Stadium, where they welcome the Japanese side with both teams eyeing a result that can make their job less complicated when they lock horns again in the all-important return leg at the Saitama Stadium 2002 on Nov. 24.

For Al Hilal veteran Mohammed Al Shalhoub, who was remarkably part of the Al Hilal team that won the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship, is a key player.

Although no longer an automatic starter, the 38-year-old's impact off the bench has been crucial. He has appeared in 11 of Al Hilal's 12 matches in the competition so far, scoring a goal every 78 minutes.

Amongst those more likely to start on Saturday, the strike partnership of Sebastian Giovinco and Bafetimbi Gomis is expected to deliver the goals that could bring them closer to Continental glory. Gomis is the competition's top scorer with 10 goals and scored in both legs of the semifinal.

The visitors from Japan have happy memories in the Saudi capital, and will be looking to replicate them as they aim to become the first-ever team to win the AFC Champions League three times.

Veteran goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa misses the first leg of the final through suspension, but the Urawa squad still has a few players from their most recent trip to Riyadh in the 2017 title-winning campaign including Kazuki Nagasawa and Tomoaki Makino.

But in skipper Yuki Abe, Urawa have a player who just like the club, aims to become a three-time AFC Champions League winner.

Having started every one of Urawa's 12 games en route to the final, 33-year-old Shinzo Koroki is still going strong and his influence at the club is as big as ever. The striker netted 42% of Urawa's 19 goals in the 2019 AFC Champions League. His eight goals put him just two behind the competition's top scorer Gomis.

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa praised both teams for reaching the 2019 AFC Champions League final.

He said: “The AFC Champions League has seen many worthy champions emerge and football fans will once again be captivated by another much-anticipated final between Al Hilal and Urawa Red Diamonds. I wish both teams the best of luck as they chase for a third AFC Champions League crown.

“The AFC is determined to build on the ever-growing popularity of the AFC Champions League which is now one of the most exciting club competitions in the world. This is the ideal stage for the Continent’s top talents to shine and excite our fans, whose passion have made this year’s competition truly memorable.”

The winners will join Al Saad of Qatar in the FIFA Club World Cup to be played in Qatar between Dec. 11 and 21, 2019. Asian sides have an impressive record on the world stage with both Kashima Antlers from Japan and UAE’s Al Ain finishing runners-up in the 2016 and 2018 editions of the FIFA Club World Cup. — Agencies