Saudis buoyed by semi berths
© AFP

In a genuine boost to Saudi Arabian football, both league champions Al Hilal and their Riyadh neighbours Al Shabab sealed qualification for the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League 2010. What is more, this is the first time two Saudi sides have reached this stage since the competition’s new format was adopted in time for the 2002/03 campaign.

Eventual victory for either club would ensure they followed in the footsteps of countrymen Al Ittihad, who appeared at the Japan 2005 edition of the FIFA Club World Cup after claiming their second consecutive Asian Champions League crown that year. Nor are continental titles anything new for Al Hilal and Al Shabab, with the former lifting Asian football’s biggest club prize in 1991/92 – the first Saudi team to do so – before repeating the feat in 1999/00. Al Shabab, for their part, tasted their biggest international success when winning the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup in 2000/01.

Another first for this season’s Champions League is the sight of three clubs from western Asia in the last four, with Iranian outfit Zob Ahan joining the two Riyadh-based outfits. This leaves Seongnam Chunma of Korea Republic as eastern Asia’s sole representatives, though they will be aiming to keep the title in South Korea for the second successive year after Pohang Steelers’ 2009 triumph.

Strength in adversity
In the group stages Al Hilal finished top of a Group D, which also consisted of Qatari club Al Sadd, United Arab Emirates representatives Al Ahli and Iranian side Mes Kerman. The latter were the only team to beat the Saudi giants in the group phase, and only then in the final round of matches after qualification for the next round was already guaranteed.

In the Round of 16 Al Hilal registered a 3-0 win over Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor, a score they repeated in the first leg of their quarter-final match against Qatari side Al Gharrafa and looked to have all but booked their place in the semi-final. However, they came in for a rude awakening in the return leg in Al Doha on 22 September as their hosts stormed into a 3-0 lead to tie the scores 3-3 on aggregate and force extra time. Al Gharrafa then scored yet again to put them in the ascendancy before Al Hilal struck twice in the last three minutes to snatch the tie 5-4.

A remarkable turnaround indeed, as described by team captain Yasser Al Qahtani after the second leg. “We didn’t play well against Al Gharrafa but our sense of duty spurred us on at crucial moments,” said the forward, whose vital 117th-minute strike made it 4-4 on aggregate. “Al Gharrafa were exceptional in normal time and scored three times, but once the game went into extra time our fitness and team spirit made us the better side and helped us to qualify.”

Once the game went into extra time our fitness and team spirit made us the better side and helped us to qualify.
Al Hilal's Yasser Al Qahtani on their last-gasp aggregate win over Al Gharrafa

Nor was Al Shabab’s route to the semi-final an easy one, with their players made to sweat right until the final whistle in their second-leg match against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The Saudi team were leading 2-0 from the first leg, but their Korea Republic opponents pulled a goal back early in the return to set up a nail-biting finale. Yet Al Shabab held firm to progress to the last four for the first time in their history, thanks in part to the confidence gained from negotiating a group containing 2007 runners-up Sepahan of Iran, Uzbek outfit Pakhtakor and 2003 champions Al Ain of the UAE.

“In this match we benefitted greatly from the experience of dealing with home and away ties, something that we’re not used to in Saudi culture,” said chairman Khaled Al Baltan, with striker Nasser Al Shamrani adding that “we only just qualified despite laying siege to the Korean goal. But even though we wasted a number of chances, the only thing that matters is we are through.”

An all-Saudi final?
Although their respective semi-finals will not be easy, with Al Hilal playing Zob Ahan and Al Shabab facing Seongnam Chunma, both clubs are determined to continue their impressive progress and secure the first all-Saudi final in the tournament’s history. This feat has previously only been achieved by clubs from Korea Republic, with Pohang Steelers and Suwon Bluewings coming out on top against Seongnam and Anyang Cheetahs (now FC Seoul) in 1996/97 and 2001/02 respectively.

One man keen to see an all-Saudi title decider is Al Hilal’s Belgian coach Eric Gerets, who stated his desire to “travel with Al Hilal to Tokyo for the Asian Champions League final on the same plane as the Al Shabab team”. Finally, adding further spice to matters was the announcement by the Zain Saudi Professional League, who offered a bonus of $1m should either club lift the coveted trophy.