Preview - Final, 1st Leg: Al Hilal SFC (KSA) vs Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN)
Riyadh: A repeat of the 2017 AFC Champions League final sees Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal host Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the decider on Saturday.
Two years ago, the two sides shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw at King Fahd International Stadium, before Urawa snatched a 1-0 victory in the return leg in Saitama to lift the AFC Champions League trophy for the second time in their history.
Al Hilal have since moved base to King Saud University Stadium, where they welcome the Japanese side with both teams eyeing a result that can make their job less complicated when they lock horns again in two weeks' time.
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Two-time Asian Club Championship winners, Saudi Arabia's most successful club team have struggled to replicate their success in the AFC Champions League era. They came close on two occasions, reaching the final in 2014 and 2017, but lost with a single goal margin both times.
This time around they started strong, topping a group that included West Asian powerhouses Al Ain, Esteghlal and Al Duhail.
They then went on to overpower domestic rivals Al Ahli and Al Ittihad in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively. Despite a 4-1 away victory in the first-leg of the quarter-finals against Al Sadd, Al Hilal had to survive a late scare at home, escaping with a 4-2 defeat to reach the final with the narrowest of margins.
Leading by example for Al Hilal is veteran Mohammed Al Shalhoub who was remarkably part of the Al Hilal team that won the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship.
Although no longer an automatic starter, the 38-year-old's impact off the bench has been crucial. He has appeared in 11 of Al Hilal's 12 matches in the competition so far, scoring a goal every 78 minutes.
Amongst those more likely to start on Saturday, the strike partnership of Sebastian Giovinco and Bafetimbi Gomis is expected to deliver the goals that could bring them closer to Continental glory. Gomis is the competition's top scorer with 10 goals and scored in both legs of the semi-final.
Urawa Red Diamonds
The visitors from Japan have happy memories in the Saudi capital, and will be looking to replicate them as they aim to become the first-ever team to win the AFC Champions League three times.
Unlike Al Hilal, Urawa took their time before moving into second gear.
The J-League side lost twice in the group stage, and fell to a third defeat in the 2019 AFC Champions League when they were beaten by Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 in the first leg of the round of 16.
They came back to win the second leg 3-0 and from then on went five games unbeaten going into Saturday's final.
2⃣0⃣ shots 🆚 6⃣ shots— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) November 3, 2019
⏪⏰ The stats that matter from the last time Al Hilal and Urawa Reds faced off in the 1st Leg of the #ACLFinal.
🤔 What are your predictions this time?#HILvURA | @Alhilal_FC | @REDSOFFICIAL pic.twitter.com/XH4X0AHH0d
Veteran goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa misses the first leg of the final through suspension, but the Urawa squad still has a few players from their most recent trip to Riyadh in the 2017 title-winning campaign including Kazuki Nagasawa and Tomoaki Makino.
But in skipper Yuki Abe, Urawa have a player who just like the club, aims to become a three-time AFC Champions League winner.
Having started every one of Urawa's 12 games en route to the final, 33-year-old Shinzo Koroki is still going strong and his influence at the club is as big as ever. The striker netted 42% of Urawa's 19 goals in the 2019 AFC Champions League. His eight goals put him just two behind the competition's top scorer Gomis.
Players to Watch
Al Hilal SFC (KSA) v Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN)
Venue: King Saud University Stadium, Riyadh
Kick-off: November 9, 19:30 UTC+3
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