Al Hilal facing history as well as Urawa in Asian final
Al Hilal is not just facing Japan’s Urawa Reds in the first leg of Asian Champions League final on Saturday in Riyadh. The Saudi Arabian club also has to overcome the dominance of teams from east Asia.
Teams from South Korea, China, Japan and Australia have dominated the continental tournament since 2005, winning every title but one. West Asia — the tournament is split into east and west geographic zones until the final — only has the 2011 triumph of Qatar’s Al Sadd to celebrate.
Other top West Asian nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and United Arab Emirates have all sent their best to contest the final yet all have failed to win the tournament that was established in 2003.
In addition to the regional failure, the Riyadh powerhouse has fallen in two finals in the past five years: losing 1-0 over two legs to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014 and then, in 2017, to Saturday’s opponent Urawa 2-1 on aggregate.
It could be a case of third-time lucky for Al Hilal especially as it has the tournament’s top scorer in its ranks. Bafetimbi Gomis has already scored 10 goals.
“I know that we have been unlucky in the Asian Champions League final on two previous occasions but we are confident that we can win this time,” said Gomis, a former French international who signed for the club for a reported transfer fee of around $16 million in August 2018.
Al Hilal’s failure to win the home leg cost the team in 2014 and 2017 and the ex-Lyon and Swansea City striker knows that taking an advantage to Japan for the return match on Nov. 24 is vital.
“We have to play to our best from the start of the first game and look to get on top,” Gomis said. “The game will not be decided here in our home stadium and will go all the way to the final whistle but we want to get a good start.”
Al Hilal starts as favorite despite Urawa’s 2017 success. The Japanese team has been struggling at home for most of the season.
While the two-time continental champion has been progressing towards another Asian final, there have been relegation worries in the J League.
Urawa sits just five points clear of the relegation zone after playing two games more than its rivals.
The Reds will put domestic worries aside and have a star striker of their own to shoot Urawa to a record third Champions League title.
“Of course I want to become a history-maker,” said forward Shinzo Koroki, who has scored eight goals on the road to the final. “This is the top club competition and the champions will go to the FIFA Club World Cup. It is a big honor for any team.”