After 11 months of riveting action, Asian football’s premier club competition came to a close last Saturday with Urawa Red Diamonds winning the 2017 AFC Champions League.
A 2-1 aggregate win over Al Hilal in the final saw the Reds crowned as champions of Asia for a second time, a decade after they first won the tournament.
As we look back on another memorable edition of the ACL, FOX Sports Asia has a go at picking our best XI of the season.
Remarkably, we’ve picked only three players from champions Urawa along with their coach, although that highlights how much their triumph came from a well-rounded team effort.
On the other hand, five players from Al Hilal have been recognised for their individual brilliance, while semi-finalists Shanghai SIPG and Persepolis, as well as Guangzhou Evergrande – who were eliminated in the last eight – get one nod each.
Goalkeeper: Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Red Diamonds)
In the end, it was down to Shusaku Nishikawa and his Al Hilal counterpart Abdullah Al-Mayouf.
Both kept five clean sheets throughout the tournament and, although Al-Mayouf conceded one less goal, we have gone with Nishikawa for producing the goods when it really mattered.
23' WHAT A SAVE!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) November 18, 2017
Nishikawa produces a brilliant save to deny Oscar from the spot.
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) April 11, 2017
In the final first leg, Al Hilal could have easily won by five goals were it not for the brilliance of Nishikawa, who twice denied top scorer Omar Kharbin from point-blank range.
Right-back: Mohammed Al-Burayk (Al Hilal)
There is a old-fashioned conception that right-backs are the most boring players on the field, focusing mainly on preventing their opponents from providing the thrills. Even left-backs are at least (most of the time) left-footed, which makes them slightly more special.
But if the likes of Dani Alves and Hector Bellerin have not changed the way people view the position recently, Mohammed Al-Burayk is sure to.
Despite his defensive starting position, the 25-year-old was regularly Al Hilal’s likeliest source of an opening and ended the campaign as his side’s joint-highest provider with five assists. And while still getting his primary job done.
Centre-back: Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal)
At the age of 33, Osama Hawsawi’s legs aren’t what they used to be but his experience and composure continue to be vital not only for Al Hilal, but the Saudi Arabia national team as well.
The towering centre-back constantly provided a reassuring presence at the back and was rarely beaten in duels with his direct opponent.
Unfortunately, the way he was turned by Rafael Silva for Urawa’s winner in the final second leg was a slight blemish on an otherwise excellent tournament, and a reminder that we should appreciate Hawsawi for what he has brought to the field while we still can.
Centre-back: Jalal Hosseini (Persepolis)
Sticking with the theme that “old is gold”, we’ve gone for someone even older to partner Hawsawi in the heart of defence.
Despite now being just three months away from turning 36, Jalal Hosseini continued to play an important role for Persepolis as they made it to the last four, keeping three clean sheets along the way.
10' Spectacular effort!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) June 12, 2017
As he keeps things simple, his good work often goes unnoticed but it was during five-game spell that he was missing from the lineup that his absence was truly felt.
Left-back: Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Without a doubt the most durable player of the tournament as the only Urawa man to play all of the 1290 minutes it took for them to win the title, Tomoaki Makino also showcased his versatility by performing equally well at left-back as he did in his usual centre-back deployment.
His experience from his time playing for Cologne was evident as he had no issues dealing with opponents both local and foreign.
68' GOAL! 3-0 @REDSOFFICIAL!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) February 21, 2017
Along the way, the Japan international even notched a goal and his disciplinary record of just two yellows in 14 games highlights how fair he is despite his tough-tackling ways.
Central midfield: Paulinho (Guangzhou Evergrande)
Paulinho may have only graced the first half of the season but, when the reason is because he went on to sign for Barcelona, then his latter absence becomes quite forgivable.
Even in the earlier stages, Paulinho was an absolute standout as he scored three goals in the group stage to help Guangzhou Evergrande reach the knockout rounds.
82' GOAL! 6-0 @GZEvergrandeFC
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) February 22, 2017
8' GOAL!! 1-0 Guangzhou Evergrande!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) April 25, 2017
Then, in the Round of 16, he scored both their goals in a 2-2 aggregate draw against Kashima Antlers, the second of which being a vital strike that ultimately saw them advance on the away goals rule.
Central midfield: Nicolas Milesi (Al Hilal)
Like Paulinho, Nicolas Milesi’s was Al Hilal’s version of the complete midfielder, breaking up opposition attacks with his defensive work rate, creating chances with visionary passing and scoring goals of his own.
40' GOAL!1-0 @Alhilal_FC
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 8, 2017
73' GOAL! 3-2 @Alhilal_FC
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 8, 2017
He scored a memorable double to help the Saudi side to a 4-3 win over Al Rayyan on the final round of the group stage, and had an equally crucial contribution with two assists to Carlos Eduardo as they beat Al Ain 3-0 in the quarter-final second leg.
Al Hilal may have come up short right at the end but Milesi is one player who can hold his head up high.
Attacking midfield: Carlos Eduardo (Al Hilal)
Despite not being an out-and-out striker, Carlos Eduardo was no stranger to hitting the back of the net and finished with seven goals to his name.
57' GOAL 2-1 @Alhilal_FC!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 23, 2017
His hat-trick against Al Ain was the obvious highlight but his contributions were more than just goals, as he regularly stretched opposition defences with his intelligent movement and neat interchanges with his team-mates.
Unfortunately, the Brazilian’s contributions in the final lasted all of 19 minutes before he was stretchered off in the first leg. If not for the untimely injury, who knows if Al Hilal would have gone on to win it?
Right forward: Hulk (Shanghai SIPG)
While Shanghai SIPG ultimately came up short in their bid to reach the final, it wasn’t for a lack of trying and certainly not on Hulk’s part.
53' GOAL! 3-0 Shanghai SIPG
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) March 15, 2017
27' GOAL! 1-1 Shanghai SIPG!
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) April 26, 2017
At times, the former Porto and Zenit St Petersburg man had to singlehandedly drag his team across the line, as other big names around him flattered to deceive.
The one-man highlight reel also finished as the competition’s joint second-highest scorer with nine goals and was a case study in consistency, scoring one goal each in nine of SIPG’s 12 outings.
Left forward: Rafael Silva (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Rafael Silva may not have started the campaign as a first-choice for Urawa but, by the end of it, he was the name on everyone’s lips.
At the most crucial moments, the Brazilian netted the semi-final winner against SIPG, the all-important away goal in the first leg against Al Hilal, and the sealer in the return encounter of the final.
His record of nine goals in 610 minutes also means he averaged hitting the back of the net once every 68 minutes – not a bad record, indeed.
Centre-forward: Omar Kharbin (Al Hilal)
It will ultimately be seen as a disappointing 2017 for Omar Kharbin from a team perspective, with Al Hilal losing the ACL final and Syria narrowly missing out on a potential spot at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
But few can take away what a year it has been on a personal level for Kharbin, as he established himself as one of the continent’s deadliest strikers.
66' GOAL! 2-2 @Alhilal_FC
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 8, 2017
31' GOAL 1-0 @Alhilal_FC
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) September 26, 2017
Like Silva, the 23-year-old had to bide his time in the earlier stages of the campaign with Leo Bonatini the preferred option as the focal point in attack.
However, with Bonatini failing to fire, Kharbin never looked back and finished as the competition’s top scorer with ten goals, with seven coming in the knockout round.
Coach: Takafumi Hori (Urawa Red Diamonds)
While Urawa were flying high in the Champions League in the earlier part of the year, their domestic form suffered and it led to previous coach Zeljko Petrovic being relieved of his duties.
It’s never easy to come in midway and do a job so what did Takafumi Hori do? Well, only go on to lead the Reds to becoming the first Japanese side to win two Asian crowns.
Urawa Reds have announced that Takafumi Hori has been rewarded for delivering the ACL title with a renewed contract for the 2018 season. https://t.co/oYh3Chr7ri
— Sean Carroll (@seankyaroru) November 26, 2017
He did forego the free-flowing attacking football but, instead, got his charges playing a well-organised, disciplined brand of football that served them well in the biggest of games.
Hori was also not afraid to deploy his players in unfamiliar roles and give fringe players an opportunity at crucial moments, with his usage of Makino, Yuki Abe and Kazuki Nagasawa – who did not start again until the semi-finals – perfect examples of his ingenious ways.