All eyes will be focused on Kuwaiti champions Al Qadisiya and Syria's Al Karama when the two sides meet in the first leg of the semi-final of the AFC Champions League in Homs on Wednesday. The giant-killing duo eliminated former champions Al Ain of the UAE and holders Al Ittihad in the quarter-finals respectively.
Al Ain and Al Ittihad were not the only big names to fall at the hands of the semi-finalists. Iran's Saba Battery, Uzbek champions Pakhtakor and Qatari giants Al Gharafa, also fell at the hands of the motivated underdogs. Now the unlikely pair are only two steps away from booking passage to the FIFA World Club Cup in Japan.
The Arabic name 'Al Karama' means 'dignity' and it is this spirit that has been in evidence in the team's run to the final four. With limited financial resources that cannot possibly be compared to some their fellow Champions League participants, the Syrians have proved themselves to be one of the best-organised teams in the competition.
"Our passion for the game is priceless and when we are on the pitch, we think of nothing but victory," said veteran defender Hassan Abbas.
A formidable unit
With most of Syria's international players spread out evenly among the country's top-flight, Al Karama are not a collection of superstars, but rather a solid and dependable unit. The harmony, teamwork and discipline they have shown in reaching the semi-finals has certainly been impressive and coach Mohammed Kwid sees it as a major factor
"Not having any superstars is not a weakness, on the contrary I believe it is a plus," he said. "I mean what are the odds of the whole team having an off day in a match?"
The squad contains a good mix. Veteran defensive partnership Kassab and Abbas are supported by Brazilian defender Fabio Santos, while the midfield relies upon Jehad Al Hussien, Abdul Kader Refai, Aatef Jenyat and the talented Iyad Mando. And up front, 20-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim will provide plenty of worries to the Al Qadisiya rearguard.
The side will be backed by a vociferous home support and midfielder Al Hussien believes that will be a crucial bonus for the first leg. "The support of our fans was crucial during this competition," he said. "When we see the desire for victory in their eyes, we know that we must continue casting our magic." Indeed, a victory over Al Qadisiya would be their fifth consecutive win at the Khaled Bin Al Waleed Stadium.
Bright future for Kuwait
Following a memorable victory over Australia in the AFC Nations Cup qualifiers, a breeze of optimism has been blowing among Kuwaiti fans after a disappointing elimination from FIFA World Cup™ qualifying last year.
There have been other indications that Kuwaiti football is on the up and Al Qadisiya's presence in the semi-finals has helped to underline that trend.
Thanks to a decision by the club's management not to sack coach Mohamed Ibrahim following a humiliating 6-0 loss to Foolad of Iran in their opening match of the competition and even turning down a request by the coach to resign, they have since gone from strength to strength
Ibrahim has managed to construct a young side with plenty of potential, and with seven international players in the ranks, the side is considered to be the future of the country's football. The foreign duo of Fouzi Basheer from Oman and Ivorian Brahima Keita provides stamina and energy in midfield. However, the absence of the skillful striker Bader Al Mutwa will be a blow to the team's hopes.
"He is a very important player and it will be disappointing to miss him on such a critical day," the coach said. "So, I will be happy to return with a draw, as we still have a game at home."
However, the Syrians would be naive to take the Kuwaiti coach's statement as a sign of safety. On the contrary, they should be aware that they will face a menacing threat from a side that have scored seven goals in their four away matches in the Champions League so far.