At the halfway point of the Asian Champions League semifinal ties one thing is evidently clear and that’s Al Hilal are now, if they weren’t already, the firm favourites to win the title.
It’s been a good couple of months for Saudi Arabian football with the national team qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in more than a decade and now the nation’s leading club side stands on the verge of claiming the continental title after they swept aside Iran’s Persepolis 4-0 in their first leg encounter on Tuesday.
With Shanghai SIPG and Urawa Red Diamonds staggering through the other semifinal in China on Wednesday where things finished 1-1 neither did anything to suggest that they’ll be a match for an Al Hilal side that sparkled throughout their encounter with Persepolis in neutral Abu Dhabi.
Due to political tensions between the two nations both legs will be played outside their home bases with the return match set down for Oman next month and that led to an obscure subsection of curious locals, engaged expats and a core group of traveling fans in the first leg that also saw some host nation hospitality that went above and beyond.
More than 70 buses were reportedly put on by football clubs across the country to ferry fans to Abu Dhabi and back the Saudi cause, and whilst it was pleasing to see a spattering of Iranian supporters – especially female ones – inside the venue it was clear that the majority were on the side of the Riyadh club.
It was also clear they left fairly chuffed after an excellent evening of attacking football that placed a clear stake in the ground that both Shanghai and Urawa may struggle to remove.
Lining up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with two attack-minded fullbacks in the unheralded Mohammed Al Far and the outstanding Yasser Al-Shahrani it was in the more advanced roles where the ‘Asian Club of the Century’ really sparkled.
Salman Al Faraj and quarterfinal star Carlos Eduardo were the creative hubs and in drifting between central and wider roles they gave Persepolis barely a moment’s rest in probing and providing for the Syrian hotshot Omar Khrbin who helped himself to an exceptional hat-trick in between getting almost carted off the pitch with what appeared a serious injury.
That the Saudi side demolished Persepolis as they did by dominating possession and playing at a constantly upbeat tempo where they worked the Iranian outfit from side to side before striking with deadly efficiency in the central areas was an impressive feat in itself – that they did so playing virtually the entire second half without their midfield shield, Abdullah Otayf, who was sent off in the 49th minute was stunning.
Whereas Kawasaki faltered in their quarterfinal clash with Urawa by trying to lock things down when they had a man dismissed, Hilal refused to be bowed and kept moving with pace and precision both with and without the ball in an effort that was worthy of the light in which they see themselves as being one of the genuine continental heavyweights.
Another club with the same kind of ambitions in Urawa traveled to China and maintained their recently adopted 4-1-4-1 lineup and also looked to play positively over an opening half that yielded two very well taken goals – the first from a player who got his start in Japanese football in Shanghai’s Brazilian superstar Hulk in the 15th minute and the second 13 minutes later from injury returnee Yosuke Kashiwagi.
The longer the match wore on the more in command the hosts emerged with several players flashing shots wide of the target over a second half that also saw Oscar strike the post with a free-kick as Reds were more and more content to drop deep and try to hold the advantage of an away goal.
That they did so fairly effectively is worthy of praise. If nothing less because results are the endgame, although both clubs, like Hilal, showed that their strengths lay in their attacking work.
Indeed, as unusual as it appears given the results, there’s an argument to be made that of the four remaining clubs it’s actually Persepolis who are the best organised defensively and there’s a sense that both second leg ties and the final itself could well have a table set that leads to a goalscoring feast.
That said the collection of expensively assembled Brazilian stars at SIPG were unusually subdued here and perhaps a telling couple of weeks off the pitch at the club domestically took their toll against an Urawa outfit whose leading attacking threats also largely failed to fire in Shanghai.
Whilst the tie between Hilal and Persepolis looks surely settled – although as we’ve seen right back to the early days of the ACL rarely things are – there’s a feeling that the Shanghai/Urawa bout is still yet to really get started and don’t be surprised to see a rush of second leg goals and quite likely some off the ball incidents in Saitama next month.
More surely than ever though this seems now to be Hilal’s title to lose and it would be fitting if indeed they did lift the trophy in the land where their coach Ramon Diaz finished his playing career and where his son, now the Hilal assistant, began his.