A trio of sides enter Wednesday's AFC Champions League semi-final second-legs seeking their first-ever place in the continental final, with each holding varying degrees of hope.
While Ulsan Hyundai can look to both their home support and a two-goal cushion as they seek progression, it will conversely be a massive task for their opponents Bunyodkor. Elsewhere, the Jeddah derby plays out its second stanza with Al Ahli harbouring hopes of an emphatic comeback victory to usurp two-time winners Al Ittihad.
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Semi-final second leg fixtures *31 October
*Al Ahli-Al Ittihad
The match *Al Ahli-Al Ittihad
*Al Ittihad received double reward for their 1-0 first-leg victory against Jeddah rivals Al Ahli. The opener provided coach Raul Caneda's side with breathing space heading into the decider, with the result also adding to their superior head-to-head record with nine more wins against Al Ahli. And the popular Ittihad will enjoy no less support in the away game, which is to be staged at the same Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium.
Ittihad’s hopes are further bolstered with the return of defender Redha Tukar, who missed the first leg through suspension. And they expect to field a full-strength line-up in the showdown, with no injuries reported in the build-up to the match. But their slow starts during a number of recent fixtures will be a cause for concerns for Caneda, having conceded the opening goal against Guangzhou Evergrande in both quarter-final legs and struggled to keep Al Ahli at bay in the first half.
For Al Ahli, the opening defeat serves only to whet their thirst for revenge. Having seen his side miss glorious opportunities before falling to Naif Hazazi's second-half goal, coach Karel Jarolim has asked his charges for improvement in front of goal as they seek their maiden final berth.
There is, however, mixed news in the Ahli camp. Midfielder Yasser Al Fahmi appears to have recovered from injury and may provide Jarolim with more tactical options. However, both defender Kamel Al Mousa and midfielder Adulrahim Jezawi look a doubt for the match nursing groin injuries.
*The other attraction *In-form Ulsan Hyundai will be quietly confident of progressing against Bunyodkor, having run out 3-1 winners in their previous meeting in Tashkent. Coach Kim Hogon's hosts remain unbeaten so far in the campaign and last season's K-League runners-up are hoping to continue their amazing run against the Uzbek visitors.
With their hopes hanging by a thread, though, coach Mirdjalal Kasimov's charges will take heart from a proud record against K-League sides this year. They twice defeated Pohang Steelers in the group campaign, before eliminating Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 1-0 in the Round of 16.
Still rueing some home-leg profligacy, including Jasur Khasanov's second-half missed penalty, Kasimov has vowed to improve his side's attacking play as the Uzbeks aim to avoid a second semi-final exit in five years. While they are left with few options but to attack in order to reverse the two-goal deficit, they must keep wary of the hosts' formidable attacking line-up headlined by Rafinha and Kim Shinwook.
*Player to watch *Naif Hazazi has scored with military regularity to help Al Ittihad into the knockout stage, being on target four times in as many games and extending his tally to eight, four goals shy of top-scorer Ricardo Oliveira of Al Jazira.
The stat 8 - This year’s Champions League has once again seen foreigners dominate the tournament scoring-chart, with eight of the top-ten goalscorers being players from beyond Asia.
What they said *"Our chances of reaching the final are now slim but we will do our best in the second leg to recover. Although it will be a tough game at Ulsan, we must put the first-leg disappointment behind us. This is our last chance and we should do our best," *Bunyodkor coach Mirdjalal Kasimov