Semi-Finals, 1st leg: 5 Things To Look Out for
Kuala Lumpur: After 10 rounds of fixtures, the 2019 AFC Champions League semi-finals are upon us, with four Asian giants to continue their quests for Continental glory in the first legs on Tuesday and Wednesday.
First up, the 2011 winners Al Sadd of Qatar take on Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, followed by a pair of two-time champions in Urawa Red Diamonds and Guangzhou Evergrande meeting a day later. Ahead of the eagerly awaited clashes, here’s the-AFC.com’s five things to look out for.
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1. Has Gomis gone off the boil?
With seven goals in his first seven AFC Champions League games, Bafetimbi Gomis was taking the tournament by storm and indeed it was the Frenchman’s hat-trick against domestic rivals Al Ittihad in the first leg of the last 16 that all but secured a place in the quarter-finals.
However, despite playing every minute of every game since, the 34-year-old has failed to add to his tally since that treble in Jeddah and the three-game barren run signals his longest spell without a goal in the competition.
65' GOAL!! @AlHilal_EN 3-2!— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) August 6, 2019
It's a HATTRICK for birthday boy Bafetimbi Gomis as he gives Al Hilal the lead against @AlAhli_FCEN in the 65th minute!
What a performance it has been from the forward who celebrates his 34th birthday today!! #ACL2019 #AHLvHIL pic.twitter.com/UGVpobR9PW
Domestically it is a similar situation as Gomis scored in his first two Saudi Pro League matches yet has not found the back of the net in three games since and, while it may be harsh to call it a slump in form, it is rare to see his name on the scoresheet so infrequently.
Al Hilal are the only side in the last four who have yet to win the AFC Champions League – a title they so desperately crave – and there is a feeling they have a squad capable of doing so this year. Ahead of the first leg against Al Sadd in Doha, there may be no better time for Gomis to rediscover his scoring form.
2. Off-form teams meet at Saitama
While Guangzhou Evergrande remain top of the Chinese Super League and in the last four of the AFC Champions League, their form in recent weeks has been the poorest its been all season.
Domestically they have lost their past two games and have not won in three as Beijing FC have moved to within a point. On the Continent, meanwhile, they have not recorded a victory since beating Shandong Luneng in the first leg of the last 16, although a pair of draws did see them past defending champions Kashima Antlers in the quarter-finals.
Yet to win away in the competition this year, Fabio Cannavaro’s team travel to Japan to face an Urawa Red Diamonds side whose form is even worse. They have picked up just two wins from 16 games stretching back to early July and exited the Emperor’s Cup to fourth tier Honda FC last week.
Urawa, in particular, have often saved their best performances for the Continent, though, and in front of an atmospheric Saitama Stadium the game has the potential to be a classic. For both sides there remains the added incentive of becoming the first three-time AFC Champions League winners, something that could inspire improved performances.
3. Home win could be key for Al Sadd
Semi-finalists last year, Al Sadd have returned to the competition with renewed desire to become champions of Asia for the first time since 2011 and they go into the game with Al Hilal at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium having won a perfect five from five at home.
Persepolis, Pakhtakor and Al Ahli were all beaten in the group stage, before 3-1 wins over domestic rivals Al Duhail and Saudi champions Al Nassr saw them through the Round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively.
That form has been crucial to their success, though, as the Qatari side have still yet to win on the road, with their record standing at: played five, lost three, drawn two. Indeed, two of those three defeats came in Saudi Arabia.
Al Sadd’s five-game winning run on home soil is the best they have ever managed in the competition and they will be desperate to make it six. It was at this stage in 2018 when they last lost an AFC Champions League game in Doha – against Persepolis – and, ahead of a tough trip to Riyadh in three weeks’ time, they will hope history does not repeat itself.
4. Koroki’s hot streak
Shinzo Koroki’s form on the Continent has been nothing short of exceptional, with Urawa's veteran striker having scored in six of his past seven games to steer the J.League side into the semi-finals for the fourth time.
Having found the back of the net in the final three group games, the 33-year-old’s brace away at Ulsan Hyundai saw Urawa reverse a 2-1 first-leg deficit to secure a 4-2 win on aggregate and a place in the quarter-finals.
Koroki was at it again in the last eight, netting away and home against Shanghai SIPG to take his overall tally in the 2019 edition to seven as the two-time champions advanced on away goals following a 3-3 aggregate draw.
The striker has already surpassed the four goals he scored in the 2017 title-winning campaign and is among the contenders for the top scorer accolade. Next up is Guangzhou Evergrande and if Koroki’s rich vein of form continues, so may Urawa’s AFC Champions League run.
5. Who wants it more?
The 2019 semi-finals are arguably the most intriguing in the competition’s history, with the four remaining sides having picked up five of the past 12 AFC Champions League titles. Each one goes into the last four looking to create their own piece of history.
In the East, both Guangzhou and Urawa are aiming to become the first-ever three-time AFC Champions League winners and, with the second leg of the final at home, coupled with the fact that sides from East Asia have won the past seven titles, the semi-final victors would consider themselves favourites in the showpiece event.
Al Sadd, meanwhile, remain the last team from the West to taste Continental glory, when they defeated Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on penalties in 2011. It is a barren run that surely must end soon and, with a side full of players who helped Qatar win the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, they must feel they are primed to also achieve success on the club scene.
Finally, no side has lifted more Continental trophies than Al Hilal, but despite continuing to reach the latter stages of the AFC Champions League, they have yet to lift the trophy. Narrow defeats in the 2014 and 2017 finals were heartbreaking, and the Riyadh club will hope it will be third time lucky should they reach the 2019 final.
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