ACL Final - Saudi Arabia vs Japan: A 20-Year Rivalry
Kuala Lumpur: Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal are set to face Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League final on Saturday, a rematch of the 2017 edition's climax. This month's ties are the latest chapter in a rich history of Continental encounters between clubs from the Saudi Pro League and the J.League.
Twenty years ago, on 22 October, 1999, Japan's Jubilo Iwata faced off against Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad in the 1999 Asian Super Cup, among the first major club clashes between two of the Continent's heavyweight.
Two decades later, sides from the two countries are set to face off once more. We rewind the clock and review some of the memorable matches between the West Asia giants and the East Asia powerhouses.
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1999: The First Meeting
The first meeting between the two nations could have come even earlier, when Yomiuri FC were set to face Al Hilal in the final of the 1987 Asian Club Championship, but international call-ups met the Riyadh side were unable to field a team, resulting in a walkover win for the Japanese club.
Instead, the first notable encounter came over a decade later as Jubilo Iwata, who won the 1998–99 Asian Club Championship, and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, the winners of the 1998–99 Asian Cup Winners' Cup, faced off.
Legendary forward Masashi Nakayama gave Jubilo a 1-0 lead in the first leg in Iwata, before he netted again in Jeddah to help the Shizuoka side to an away goals victory after late strikes from Hasan Al Yami and Mohammad Haider ensured a frenetic finish.
2000: Al Hilal Double-Up
Saudi Arabia did not have to wait long for a chance at redemption, however, with Al Hilal facing off against Japanese opposition in consecutive Continental finals the following year. First was a meeting with Al Ittihad's conquerors, Jubilo Iwata, in the final of the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship in Riyadh.
A scintillating opening 20 minutes saw Sergio Ricardo first open the scoring for the hosts before Jubilo fired back with goals from Nakayama and Naohiro Takahara. With just a minute remaining Sergio Ricardo netted the equaliser, before firing home a golden goal in extra-time to ensure Al Hilal lifted their fourth Asian title.
Their fifth Continental trophy came just eight months later as their Asian Super Cup clash saw them paired off against another Japanese side, Shimizu S-Pulse, in December.
A Ricardo Perez brace gave the Saudi club a 2-1 lead after the first leg in Shizuoka, before Omar Al Ghamdi 70th-minute goal secured the 3-2 aggregate victory in Riyadh, after defender Daisuke Ichikawa had initially given the visitors hope with his first-half effort.
It was to be nearly a decade before the two nations would meet again in Continental club competition and by then the scene had changed dramatically with the AFC Champions League replacing the Asian Club Championship, Asian Super Cup and Asian Cup Winners' Cup.
Nevertheless, Al Ittihad and Nagoya Grampus made up for the time apart with an exciting contest in the 2009 AFC Champions League semi-finals.
An action-packed eight-goal thriller between the two sides in the first leg saw the Saudis come out on top 6-2 courtesy of Mohammed Noor's hat-trick, with three Al Ittihad goals coming in the final 10 minutes of play.
A 2-1 win in Nagoya in the return meeting, cemented the 8-3 aggregate win and Al Ittihad's place in the 2009 AFC Champions League final, where they lost to Korea Republic's Pohang Steelers.
2013: Kashiwa and Al Shabab play out a classic
Due to tournament restructuring, the 2013 edition of the AFC Champions League was the last time West and East Asia would meet prior to the competition's final, but the quarter-final between Al Shabab and Kashiwa Reysol remains an exciting encounter.
Goals from Masato Kudo and Fernando in the first leg in Japan ensured the return meeting in Saudi Arabia was intriguingly poised and the sides did not disappoint in a 2-2 scoreline that saw Kashiwa edge through to the semi-finals, despite Hassan Fallatah's 85th-minute equaliser on the night ensuring a high-octane end to the tie.
2017: The First ACL Final
This year's finalists Al Hilal and Urawa locked horns for the first time two years ago at the showpiece event of the 2017 AFC Champions League.
The first leg was in Riyadh in front of nearly 60,000 at King Fahd International Stadium, where Urawa Red Diamonds stunned the majority of the crowd by taking the lead in the seventh minute through Rafael Silva.
Five minutes before half-time Omar Khribin restored parity to ensure the scoreline would be all square heading back to Japan for the finale at Saitama Stadium 2002.
With a crowd once more close to 60,000, a closely fought contest was eventually ended by a fine strike from Silva two minutes before time as Urawa ensured Al Hilal suffered their first defeat to Japanese opposition in a Continental final after back-to-back victories.
2019: History Beckons
November's matches between Al Hilal and Urawa are set to be a more than worthy addition, if only for what is at stake for the two teams.
For Urawa, victory would ensure they become the first side to lift the AFC Champions League trophy three times, while for Al Hilal, despite their Continental success, they are yet to win the AFC Champions League and, indeed, have lost at the final hurdle twice, in 2014 and two years ago. They will be desperate to avoid becoming runners-up for a third time.
Whatever happens, it is sure to be an intriguing and exciting series of matches between two of Asia's biggest teams to fittingly conclude the Continent's premier club tournament.
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