Excitement is steadily building in Saudi Arabia as the western city of Jeddah prepares for the most important derby in its history. Powerhouse clubs Al Ahli and Al Ittihad have long divided local loyalties, but their rivalry is about to enter a new dimension as they gear up for a first-ever meeting in the AFC Champions League semi-finals.
For the victors, the prize on offer is nothing short of a tilt at the most prestigious club title in the Asian game – and, if they can snare that, the chance to represent the entire continent at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012.
The two-legged tie could hardly come loaded with higher stakes for the two teams, who are sure to give everything as they tussle for the honour of defending Saudi Arabia's colours in the Champions League showpiece. In particular, Al Ahli will be hyper-motivated to prevail, having yet to taste continental glory despite amassing a long list of national and regional titles since the club's creation in 1937.
Above all, Al Ahli will be anxious to avoid the kind of disappointment they suffered in 1986 when, as the first Arab outfit to reach the Arab Club Championship final, they succumbed 3-1 to South Korean side Busan IPark in front of their own fans. Aggravating their misery, the club then went on to spend a lengthy spell in the continental wilderness, struggling in vain to return to the elite until the competition was rebranded and began a whole new era as the Champions League.
Al Ahli contested brief campaigns in the new-look competition in 2005, 2008 and 2010, but it has taken them until this season to make another truly telling impact. Indeed, after graduating from Group C and downing United Arab Emirates side Al Jazira, they showed what they are capable of in the second leg of the quarter-finals, following up their goalless opener with Iranian rivals Sepahan by winning the decider 4-1.
The whole team are buzzing and determined to continue their adventure, as star player Taysir al-Jassim explained after the penalty shoot-out victory against Al Jazira. "It was a difficult match, but we fought until the very last second as we're used to doing," he said. "One of the secrets of our success is our irresistible desire to go as far as possible in this competition."
They could yet go all the way, with the final now one step away – 26 years after the heartbreak of their sole previous visit. The players will therefore be desperate to see off arch-rivals Al Ittihad, just as their supporters are hoping to watch their heroes establish local supremacy and secure the ultimate bragging rights.
Meanwhile, for both players and fans alike, the dream of ending Al Ittihad's exclusive claim to continental prowess is a potent one, their neighbours having previously won two consecutive Champions League crowns and taken part in the FIFA Club World Cup.
In broader terms, Al Ahli are keen to carry on the progress they have been making since last year, when they challenged Al Shabab for the Saudi Arabian title right up until the final day. They should also go into the Al Ittihad tie free of any inferiority complex, with their memories fresh of a 3-1 win last season that ended a run of four straight league losses to their rivals. Indeed, belief will likewise have been fed by their King Cup of Champions success last term.
The Champions League represents a whole different level, of course, and part of the joy for the victors will be the thought of denying their opponents a spot in the showpiece. For all the heightened importance of this derby, though, Al Ahli's president, Prince Fahd Ben Khaled, is looking forward to a pair of games played in the right spirit. "The two matches will be tough and the important thing is for us to qualify," he said. "We have to maintain a sporting attitude and wish the winners well, while wishing better luck to the losers next time around."
Once the action begins, Al Ahli will look to their attacking riches to see them through, Czech coach Karel Jarolim having given the club a real goalscoring edge last season. He now boasts an array of options in forward areas and every combination provides a threat, which makes life difficult for any team preparing to take them on. "I used all my forwards so that they'll be ready for the games to come," he explained after the win against Sepahan. "The road is going to be long and we'll need all our attacking assets."
So far, Brazilian striker Victor Simoes and Oman's Amad Al Hosni have formed the most fearsome partnership for Al Ahli in this season's tournament, the two men notching six and four goals respectively out of their team's total of 17.
Quick on their feet in the area and capable of finding the net from every angle, the duo have helped spread belief among their team-mates, while making the difference time and time again. Simoes has struck in each of his outings bar one, in fact, and Al Hosni has come into his own during the knockout phase, scoring three times.
Crucially, Simoes is expected to be fit again for the derby after injuring himself against Sepahan, and he ought to find his colleague in high spirits as he returns to the line-up. Always quick to underline his hunger to lead Al Ahli into the Champions League final, Al Hosni recently celebrated the birth of his first child, and his mood has further been lifted by Oman's fine results in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying.
Jarolim's side also possess plenty of creative spark in midfield, where Al-Jassim has excelled since last season alongside winger Abdulrahim Jaizawi, who has weighed in with three goals. The two men provide impressive support for the forwards, while Argentinian talent Diego Morales – a recent signing from Tigre – can pose plenty of problems of his own for opposition defences.
As time ticks down to Monday's first leg, the burning question is whether those players can help Al Ahli topple their Jeddah neighbours and carry the club closer to a long-awaited first Asian crown. Or will they be left looking for positives from a promising campaign in which that maiden title again proves elusive?