Saudi quartet eye continental glory

Saudi club football is on the rise once more after all four of the country’s representatives made it into the last 16 of the 2011 AFC Champions League. The quartet of Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Shabab and Al Nasr will fly the flag for the kingdom as the continent’s premier club competition enters the knockout phase. 

These same four teams also qualified for the this phase in 2009, when Jeddah outfit Al Ittihad went all the way to the final, only to lose 2-1 to Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers. takes a closer look at their successful group stage campaigns and assesses their chances of going further in this famously tough competition. 

The return of Al Hilal
Saudi league title-holders Al Hilal are looking to return to the summit of Asian football over a decade after winning the Asian Club Championship and Asian Super Cup in 2000, followed by the Asian Cup Winners Cup in 2002. The signs are good, too, as this is the third consecutive edition in which they have made the Round of 16, including a run to the semi-final last time out. 

That said, the 13-time Saudi League champions got off to a poor start this year with a shock 2-1 home defeat to Iranian Group A rivals Sepahan, though they bounced back with successive victories over Qatar’s Al Gharafa and Emirati side Al Jazira (twice). In their next match, Al Hilal travelled to Iran, where they snatched a priceless 1-1 draw against Sepahan, before a 2-0 defeat of Al Gharafa put them level on 13 points with the Iranians and into the next round. 

Their next encounter will be an all-Saudi affair, against Group C qualifiers Al Ittihad. The local rivals have met twice this season, with both fixtures ending in scoreless draws, so it is sure to be a tight contest to fill Saudi Arabia’s guaranteed quarter-final slot.   

What they said: "Our desire to advance played a big role in the results that we have had. All the teams in Round of 16 are big teams and they have shown good performances in the competition. The game against Al Ittihad will be tough and we will never underestimate them," Al Hilal coach Gabriel Calderon.

Al Ittihad aiming for summit again
Al Ittihad are the only Saudi side to have won the Champions League since the tournament was first staged in 2002/03. The Jeddah club claimed back to back titles in 2004 and 2005 and reached the final in 2009, so hopes are high that they can go one better this year. 

One of the first teams to qualify for the Round of 16, Al Ittihad put on a superb display in their first three outings, sweeping aside Iran’s Persepolis, Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor and UAE side Al Wahda to take a stranglehold on Group C. 

They then lost their aura of invincibility with home draws against Al Wahda and Bunyokdor and a 3-2 defeat away to Persepolis, although they still ran out section winners with 11 points.  

What they said: "We have qualified early to the round of 16 and playing at home in our first game in the next round will give us a big advantage. We respect all our opponents and we will be playing to win," Al Ittihad captain Mohamed Noor. 

Al Shabab aiming high
The Riyadh-based club’s only continental title to date was the Asian Cup Winners Cup back in 2001. In five attempts since then, Al Shabab have never reached the final of the Champions League, their best result coming last year, when they succumbed in the semis to eventual winners Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of Korea Republic.   

The team made heavy weather of navigating Group D this year after opening their account with two draws against Qatari side Al Rayyan and Iran’s Zob Ahan. Al Shabab finally recorded a victory at their third attempt with an emphatic 4-1 away win over UAE’s Emirates at the Emirates Club Stadium in Ras Al Khaimah. 

A second triumph followed in the return match with Al Rayyan, leaving their hopes of qualification resting on the outcome of their away tie against Zob Ahan in Isfahan. The White Lions hung on bravely in Iran and claimed the win thanks to a goal against the run of play by striker Faisal Al Sultan. 

They will be looking to build on that success in the next round against Qatar’s Al Sadd. The pair crossed swords at the group stage of this competition in 2006, when the Saudis won 3-2 away after earlier playing out a scoreless draw in Riyadh. 

What they said: "We gave a big performance in the last match in the group stage. We showed great fighting spirit to make a good comeback in the group and our target has always been to compete for the AFC Champions League and then play in the FIFA Club World Cup," Al Shabab striker Fisal Bin Sultan.

Al Nasr back in the mix
After a long absence from all Asian competitions, Al Nasr secured their place in this year’s Champions League courtesy of a third-place finish in last year’s Saudi league championship. Making the most of the opportunity, the Riyadh side then booked their place in the knockout phase after finishing runners-up in Group B. 

A vital point against Pakhtakor in Tashkent followed by a 2-1 home win over Tehran’s Esteghlal got their campaign off to a strong start. And though they garnered just a solitary point from their two meetings with group winners Al Sadd, they made amends with a crushing 4-0 defeat of Pakhtakor, leaving them in need of a point from their final game against Esteghlal to guarantee qualification. A 2-1 defeat to the Iranians left the two sides on eight points, but Al Nasr’s superior goal difference, +3 to +1, earned them a Round-of-16 meeting with Zob Ahan later this month. 

What they said: "What is important for me is that we qualified for the round of 16. The spirit of the players played a big role in this achievement," Al Nasr coach Dragan Skocic.

Star turns
The Saudi teams’ success in this year’s competition owes much to the effort of their big-name players. Saudi Arabia national team striker Yasser Al Qahtani scored four goals for Al Hilal, putting him joint third on the list of this year’s top scorers alongside Al Nasr’s Kuwaiti front man Bader Al Mutwa, among others. 

For his part, Algerian forward Abdelmalek Ziaya has struck three times for Al Ittihad, who are also heavily indebted to their skipper Mohammed Noor. The latter, with two goals so far in the competition, has been an inspiration in midfield and is due much of the credit for his team’s progress. 

Finally, Al Shabab have a star of their own this year in the form of striker Nasser Al Shamrani, the top scorer in the Saudi league this year. With Al Shamrani carrying over his fine into the Champions League, his side have high hopes of progressing further in the showpiece competition.