Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, Saudi Arabia’s three flag-bearers in the AFC Champions League, have all made it through to the quarter-finals of the continental showpiece. Moreover, the feat has provided a large measure of consolation for those Saudi fans disappointed by the national team’s failure to progress in the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
As the continent’s premier club competition enters the last-eight stage, optimism abounds with Saudis everywhere beginning to believe that the coveted title may be headed for their shores. FIFA.com takes a look back over the trio’s triumphant passage through the Round of 16 en route to the quarter-finals.
After a disappointing domestic season that saw them relinquish their league title Hilal managed to prove that, in the international arena at least, their form has not deserted them.
A dominant display in the first round included three straight victories, the most important being a 1-0 win in their return-leg encounter against Tehran giants Persepolis.
By finishing atop Group D the Riyadh-based side earned the right to contest their Round of 16 match against UAE opponents Bani Yas in the Kingdom. Reaping the benefit of home advantage, the Saudis ran rampant to record a historic 7-1 victory that had their supporters in raptures.
The result was enough to see them through to the last eight, but as Al Hilal playmaker Ahmed Al Fraidi explained after the game, their performance had a deeper significance for the team: “It’s the best we played all season,” the 24-year-old midfielder said. “It was a brilliant performance. We managed to impose our style of play on the game and translate our chances into no fewer than seven goals.”
It is this type of performance that Al Fraidi believes is the key to further success. “If we keep it like that we can go on to the end,” he added.
Every member of the team is keen to make it up to their supporters, and success in Asia would allow them to return to a new domestic season with renewed vigour. For captain Osama Hawsawi, who will be leaving Al Hilal for Belgian outfit Anderlecht, the occasion has a special significance. “This was my last match with the side,” said the Saudi international, “and it was the best way to say goodbye before going to Belgium. All the lads are determined to end our season in style and that massive win over Bani Yas should please everyone and ensure we come back strong for the next campaign.”
Like Al Hilal before them, two-time Asian champions Al Ittihad have used the Champions League to put a season of domestic disappointment behind them.
Five wins in Group B put them top of the table, giving them home advantage against their Iranian Round of 16 opponents Persepolis. It was an advantage they exploited to the full, putting three unanswered goals past their shell-shocked opponents.
Throughout the competition the side from Jeddah have shown themselves to be a well-drilled unit, compact in defence and fluid in attack. Egyptian Hosny Abd Rabo, who joined the side during the winter transfer window, has enjoyed an excellent run of form in midfield and hopes his team’s progress in the competition can continue.
“We were very strong against Persepolis,” said the Egyptian star. “We were determined to beat them to keep the fans happy, and now we’re back at the level where we belong. Let’s hope we can turn in a better domestic performance next season.”
Compared to their compatriots, Al Ahli’s progress through the tournament has been rather less smooth. The side’s supporters are accustomed to their team making things hard for themselves, so their qualification as runners-up spot in Group C came as little surprise.
Finishing second meant that the Saudis had to travel to Abu Dhabi to take on their knockout-phase opponents Al Jazira, whose formidable attacking style had led them to the summit of Group A.
It was a daunting task but Al Ahli fought valiantly, with Marcelo Camacho putting them ahead in the 22nd minute and triggering a tit-for-tat battle in which the visitors went behind twice before finally levelling the score 3-3 two minutes before the end of extra time courtesy of Brazilian striker Victor Simoes. In the ensuing penalty shoot-out, the Saudi side fell behind once again, before holding their nerve to turn things around.
Midfield lynchpin Taiseer Al Jassam was delighted his team had made it across the line: “We played a good game against stubborn opposition in their back yard. We’ve got used to playing games like that this season and we fight until the final minute. We never give in. Our secret is our determination to go as far as we can in the competition.”
All eyes on the draw
With the Round of 16 safely negotiated, Saudi eyes are now firmly fixed on the draw for the next phase of the championship. Local fans will be hoping to avoid a Saudi derby in the quarter-finals, while the teams themselves will have only one objective in mind: reaching the final and earning a shot at the title itself.