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2019 Final: 5 things to look out for

Saitama: The waiting is over and the last game of the 2019 AFC Champions League is almost upon us as Urawa Red Diamonds and Al Hilal get set to face off in the second leg of the final at Saitama Stadium on Sunday. 

With Urawa a goal down but seeking an unprecedented third AFC Champions League crown and Al Hilal targeting a first to add to the many Asian titles they have won before, has chosen five things to look out for ahead of the game.

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1. Hashioka’s key role

Few Urawa players came out of the first leg with any credit, but Daiki Hashioka was undoubtedly one. With his team under constant pressure in Riyadh, the right-sided player won more duels and more tackles than anyone else on the pitch as the two-time champions returned home with just a single-goal deficit.

Hashioka, who scored twice on his AFC Champions League debut against Buriram United in March, will have an altogether different role to play on Sunday, having developed into a key part of Urawa’s attacking play, particularly in the competition’s knockout rounds.

Despite appearing in just seven games, his 26 crosses from open play is the second highest number in Urawa’s squad, and it was his inch-perfect delivery that teed Shinzo Koroki up for the only goal of the second leg against Guangzhou Evergrande to effectively seal a place in the final.

The 20-year-old will face another intriguing contest with Al Hilal’s left full-back Yasser Al Shahrani, who has always excelled going forward but is more fallible defensively. Should Hashioka win that battle it will be good news for Koroki in the centre and potentially a fruitful evening for the hosts. 

#ACLFinal 2019 - Preview 2nd Leg: Urawa Red Diamonds vs Al Hilal SFC

2. Al Dawsari’s redemption?

Two years ago, Salem Al Dawsari went into the final against Urawa in fine form, having scored a decisive goal in the Round of 16 and then creating five of Al Hilal’s 10 goals from the quarter-finals onwards including, albeit a little fortuitously, their goal in Riyadh.

But after a positive start at Saitama Stadium in which he fired just over the crossbar in the first half, it all ended in bitter disappointment as the winger was dismissed for picking up two yellow cards in quick succession when his side were chasing the game in the final 20 minutes.

Just like in 2017, Al Dawsari goes into the game in Japan on the back of some excellent performances and, this time, part of the creative trident behind Bafetimbi Gomis that includes Sebastian Giovinco and Andre Carrillo, all of whom caused the Urawa backline considerable problems in the first leg.

The 28-year-old is one of a handful of Al Hilal players who have twice tasted defeat in the final as he was part of the 2014 side that lost to Western Sydney Wanderers. Now in the prime of his career, Al Dawsari will be desperate to avoid a third heartbreak and help his side finally claim the prize they crave most. 

3. Will Al Hilal stick or twist?

For the first time in an AFC Champions League final, Al Hilal go into the second leg not chasing the game. In 2014, they were 1-0 down from the first leg when they took on Western Sydney in Riyadh, while two years ago a 1-1 draw at home to Urawa meant they needed an away goal at Saitama Stadium.

While they could, and perhaps should, have scored more in the first meeting with Urawa this time round, Razvan Lucescu’s team start the reverse fixture in the ascendancy and in the knowledge that it is their hosts who need to break them down.

But, while a clean sheet would guarantee a long-awaited first AFC Champions League title, an away goal would leave the J.League side needing to score three and, thus, potentially leave holes in their defence for the visitors to exploit.

With 24 goals, Al Hilal are the tournament’s top scorers and undoubtedly have the arsenal to hurt Urawa. Should they find the back of the net on Sunday, their opponents would have a mountain to climb; the question is, will they go for it?

4. Three is the magic, or unwanted, number

Never before has a side lifted the AFC Champions League trophy three times, but that is exactly what Urawa hope they will be doing at around 9:00 pm local time on Sunday as they target a historic third title.

Winners in 2004 and 2005, Al Ittihad have two to their name, but missed out on a third when they lost to Pohang Steelers in the 2009 final, while both Guangzhou Evergrande and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have also twice been crowned champions

Should Urawa become the first side to overhaul a first-leg deficit and win the tournament since Al Ittihad did so in 2004, meanwhile, they would also ensure a third successive title for Japan (Urawa 2017, Kashima Antlers 2018) in another feat that has yet to be achieved.

Conversely, no side has the unenviable record of finishing as runners-up three times, with Al Hilal and Al Ain both currently on two apiece. While the Riyadh club have won more Asian titles (6) than any other team, this is one record they will be desperate to avoid.

5. Lucescu aiming to complete a remarkable year

It’s not been a bad year for Razvan Lucescu, the Romanian who won the 2018-19 Greek Super League unbeaten and then followed it up with the Greek Cup – his second in a row – before departing the Mediterranean country to team up with Al Hilal.

A league-cup double with any club should be commended, but the fact the Romanian managed the feat with PAOK ahead of powerhouses Olympiacos, Panathnaikos and AEK Athens made it all the more remarkable. To further highlight the scale of the achievement, it was the first time the title had gone to a club outside of the traditional Athens giants since 1988.

Such success is exactly why Al Hilal, who had recently lost out on the 2018-19 Saudi Pro League title to city rivals Al Nassr, came calling. And make no mistake about it, the 50-year-old would instantly become a legend at the Riyadh club should he end their AFC Champions League hoodoo this weekend.

Lucescu is looking to become the second Romanian to lift the trophy after the legendary Anghel Iodanescu – who also enjoyed Asian Club Championship glory with Al Hilal in 2000 – won the 2005 competition with Al Ittihad. Should he do so, he would cap a near perfect 2019 having picked up titles on two continents.

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