Road to the Final: 6 Key Moments
Kuala Lumpur: The clock is ticking down towards the 2019 AFC Champions League final between Al Hilal and Urawa Red Diamonds as the sides get set to meet for the second time in three years when the first leg kicks off in Riyadh on Saturday.
While both teams undoubtedly deserve their place in the showpiece event, there are a number of key moments and perhaps even some strokes of luck that have helped them along the way. The-AFC.com has picked out six events that have contributed to the sides’ success in the 2019 campaign.
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1. Al Hilal secure victory in Al Ain
After a surprise group stage exit in 2018, Al Hilal returned with renewed hope this time round but were drawn in arguably the most difficult group, alongside Qatar’s star-studded Al Duhail, Iranian giants Esteghlal and fellow Continental powerhouse Al Ain.
The Riyadh side faced a tricky opening-day encounter in Al Ain against a team they had never managed to beat away from home. Indeed, Al Ain’s 2-1 victory at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in 2018 had confirmed Al Hilal’s elimination in what was their worst showing in the tournament since 2006.
But there was to be no repeat result this time round as Al Hilal – bolstered by quality arrivals such as Bafetimbi Gomis and Sebastian Giovinco – put in an assured performance to claim a 1-0 win and get off to the perfect start.
And they had an old hand to thank for the three points as one-club man Mohammad Al Shalhoub delivered a typically composed finish into the top corner midway through the second half to enjoy a double celebration following the birth of his son earlier that day.
Al Hilal advanced with ease from what was considered a tough group and they haven’t looked back since.
2. Koroki opens his account
While Shinzo Koroki’s second-half goal in a 2-1 defeat at Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Matchday Four may have appeared insignificant as Urawa slumped to a second successive loss and looked in danger of an early exit, it began a run of form that has seen him develop into one of the most feared strikers on the Continent.
Koroki had gone seven games without a goal in the AFC Champions League, stretching back to the 2017 quarter-finals, but since that goal in Jeonju he has barely stopped scoring. Two more goals in victories over Buriram United and Beijing FC saw the Saitama side progress and his form would only get better.
Following a disappointing 2-1 home loss to Ulsan Hyundai in the first leg of the last 16, Urawa were on the verge of elimination once more, yet a pair of Koroki headers helped his side to a hugely impressive 3-0 win, before he scored home and away against Shanghai SIPG in the quarter-finals.
Another header, in the second leg of the semi-finals away at Guangzhou Evergrande, was the only goal of the game as a 3-0 aggregate win sealed a place in the main event. If the goal in Jeonju back in April did nothing for his team on the night, it kick-started Koroki’s campaign and a scoring run that is largely responsible for Urawa’s return to the final.
3. Al Qarni’s blunder
After overcoming domestic rivals Al Ahli in the last 16, Al Hilal were paired with another Jeddah side, Al Ittihad, in the quarter-finals. And while they had claimed a 4-2 win at King Abdullah Sports City in the previous round, a scoreless draw in the first leg left the return meeting in Riyadh firmly in the balance.
Two-time winners Al Ittihad opened the scoring early on at King Saud University Stadium to leave the hosts needing two to advance and, with half-time approaching, the Jeddah club were looking in a strong position.
44' GOAL! @AlHilal_EN 1-1!— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) September 17, 2019
Al Hilal FC have levelled things up here just before half time as Andre Carillo's cross ends up in the back of the net. Al Ittihad goalkeeper Fawaz Al-Qarni should have done better there! 1-1! #ACL2019 #HILvITT pic.twitter.com/7u4Pojd76m
However, just a minute before the interval, Razvan Lucescu’s side got the break they needed. Salem Al Dawsari found Andre Carrillo inside the right side of the area before the Peruvian’s low cross towards Gomis was diverted into his own net by goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni.
It would prove a costly error by the custodian as, buoyed by their equaliser, the home side took the lead through Al Dawsari shortly after the interval. Sebastian Giovinco later rounded off the scoring as a place in the semi-finals and bragging rights went to Al Hilal.
4. Hulk’s absence from Saitama contest
Few players have as big an influence on their team as Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk, who has so often been the difference between success and failure for the Chinese team.
On the Brazilian’s previous trip to Japan, in early May, his brace against Kawasaki Frontale – the first a goal of the tournament contender – was key to his side’s progression to the knockout rounds. Then, in the last 16, Hulk’s equaliser away at Jeonbuk ensured the game went to penalties where, naturally, he scored.
Two goals down at home to Urawa, Hulk was again Shanghai’s inspiration as he struck a pair of second-half penalties to salvage a 2-2 draw. A booking in first-half stoppage time, however, ruled him out of the return meeting at Saitama Stadium.
Without their skipper in Japan, Shanghai recorded their lowest number of attempts on goal (5) of the 2019 campaign and their joint lowest efforts on target (2) as summer recruit Marko Arnautovic, among others, failed to step to the fore in Hulk’s absence and Urawa edged through on away goals.
5. Abdelkarim Hassan’s red card
A mouthwatering semi-final clash against Al Sadd handed Al Hilal yet another tough obstacle to overcome and, with the first leg in Doha where the Qatari side had won five from five, Lucescu’s side would surely have been satisfied to return to Riyadh without being beaten.
Desperate to make up for a narrow defeat in the 2018 semi-finals, Xavi Hernandez’s Al Sadd went in front through a Gomis own goal inside 15 minutes. But the game turned on its head in the space of three minutes shortly after the half hour.
Gomis made amends for his error by levelling in the 33rd minute before the 2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan was shown two yellow cards in quick succession to receive his marching orders and suddenly Al Sadd were on the back foot.
Ali Al Bulayhi put Al Hilal in front just before half-time before Gomis and Al Shalhoub sealed an emphatic 4-1 victory in the second half. Al Sadd almost produced a stunning comeback in the second leg and had it not been for Hassan’s red card it may well have been them, and not Al Hilal, lining up against Urawa.
6. Talisca strikes the crossbar
Urawa travelled to Guangzhou for the second leg of the semi-finals with a 2-0 lead to defend but, against a team that boasted a 21-game unbeaten run at home and were spurred on by a capacity crowd at Tianhe Stadium, the Saitama side still had plenty of work to do.
As expected, Guangzhou came out all guns blazing and Anderson Talisca, in particular, was in the mood to help create a memorable night in Guangdong, with the Brazilian testing goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa early on and then heading narrowly wide soon after.
Fabio Cannavaro’s men kept the pressure on and seven minutes before the interval, Talisca spun and fired goalwards, only to see his powerful effort rebound off the crossbar. It was to be as good as it got for the hosts.
Had the 25-year-old’s attempt gone in, Urawa would have faced an arduous second half. What transpired was Koroki netted five minutes after the restart to take the sting out of Guangzhou’s game and the Japanese side played out the second 45 minutes with relative ease.
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