A pair of Saudi heavyweights head into Wednesday’s AFC Champions League semi-final return legs knowing that history will be made should they emerge victors. For the first time, the continental title will be decided between teams representing the same country if Riyadh-based Al Hilal and Al Shabab prevail over Iran’s Zob Ahan and Seongnam Ilhwa of Korea Republic.
And they have plenty of reasons to believe they can create history. Al Hilal, despite losing the opening leg by a solitary-goal, can count on their formidable home form at the King Fahd International Stadium which they have turned into a fortress. Neighbours Al Shabab will draw inspiration from the kind of fighting spirit on display in their first leg against Seongnam, in which they eventually prevailed 4-3 despite falling behind on three separate occasions.
Awaiting the victors will be passage to the final in Tokyo on 13 November, as well as a potential berth to December's 2010 FIFA Club World Cup.
2010 AFC Champions League semi-final second leg fixtures
Al Hilal (KSA)-Zob Ahan (IRN)
Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)-Al Shabab (KSA)
Al Hilal-Zob Ahan
The contest is set to capture the imagination of fans across Asia with the tournament’s remaining favourites playing hosts to an unlikely semi-final participant. To prepare for the decisive game, coach Eric Gerets' home side have rested over the past two weeks seeking to be in peak form for the crunch tie. They may have gone down to Ghasem Hadadifar's 57th-minute free-kick in the previous meeting but if their home form is anything to go by, the most successful Saudi club will overturn that result at home. "We always get good results at home," said Gerets. "I think we can score two or three goals to reverse the one-goal deficit."
Gerets strong belief in his side, however, did little to daunt opposite number, Mansour Ebrahimzadeh, who has openly stated his club’s ambition to win their first continental crown. "We want to reach the final and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup," he said. "We are going to put everything we've got into achieving this aim." Unlike Al Hilal, Zob Ahan have remained active on the domestic front, drawing 1-1 with Shahin before firing three unanswered goals past Malavan on Friday to strengthen their lead in the Iran Pro League.
The other headline-grabber
Seongnam Ilhwa-Al Shabab
Al Shabab's re-emergence on the Asian stage this year is largely attributable to their formidable attacking firepower, with 19 goals scored in 11 outings. Spearheading their forward line is Uruguayan striker Juan Manuel Olivera, who was twice on target in their 4-3 home victory over Seongnam. But a suspect defense remains a potential Achilles heel, with the club conceding 14 goals in the campaign so far. While hoping his side remains tight at the back, Al Shabab coach Jorge Fossati has concerns over their creative options with the suspension of attacking midfielder Ahmed Ateef.
Seongnam, for their part, will be seeking to capitalise on Al Shabab's defensive weaknesses and catch them out with their pacy attack on the recently improved pitch of their Tancheon Sports Complex. At the centre of their offense is midfielder Mauricio Molina, who has netted seven times in Seongnam's campaign, including a brace against Al Shabab a fortnight ago. Seongnam came up with a goalless draw with Daejeon Citizen on Friday during which the in-form Molina came close to scoring, hitting the woodwork with a free-kick. The Korean club will undoubtedly be once again looking to their Columbian star for inspiration.
Player to watch
Time after time Saudi legend Yasser Al Qahtani has salvaged Al Hilal’s pride and both his clinical finishing and leadership will be key if his side are to progress at the expense of Zob Ahan.
What they said
"We will go on the attack in the second leg and try to take advantage of the weaknesses of Al Shabab. Their defensive display was not good and hopefully we will use this to our advantage," Seongnam coach Shin Tae-Young.