AFC Champions League quarter-finals: Saudi clubs dominate line-up

The 2023-24 AFC Champions League is moving towards its latter stages and next week sees the first legs of the tournament’s quarter-finals. Clubs from East and West Asia remain separated until the final and in the West, it is Saudi Arabia that is dominating the draw.

It is guaranteed that at least one Saudi club will feature in the semi-finals and it promises to be a fascinating battle between the eight clubs left chasing continental glory. Here, Al Arabiya English previews the quarter-final ties:

Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) vs Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)

The all-Saudi clash pits record four-time AFC Champions League winner Al Hilal against two-time champion Al Ittihad – ensuring there will be a team from the Kingdom in the semi-final for the seventh time in the past nine seasons. The two sides are familiar foes and will in fact do battle in the Saudi Pro League on Friday, four days before they meet in continental competition.

Al Hilal hasn’t lost to Al Ittihad since a 2-0 Saudi Pro League defeat in 2021, most recently beating the Jeddah giant 4-3 in an entertaining league match in December. Al Ittihad also lost to its Riyadh rival in the Arab Club Champions Cup quarter-finals last summer and the 2023 King’s Cup semi-finals.

Al Ittihad is the reigning Saudi champion, but Al Hilal appears certain to usurp it this season, boasting a comfortable seven-point gap at the top of the table. Jorge Jesus’ side has been in irresistible form in 2023-24, now unbeaten in 33 games across all competitions and looking utterly dominant at home and abroad.

Al Ittihad meanwhile has struggled in its domestic title defence, with Argentinian Marcelo Gallardo drafted in to replace Nuno Espirito Santo as coach in November. Gallardo has impressive continental pedigree having won two South American Copa Libertadores titles with River Plate as a manager, adding to the one he won with the cub as a player.

AFC Champions League group stage progress was secured with ease for Al Hilal, who won five and drew one of its matches, before impressively dispatching Iranian heavyweight Sepahan in the last-16, winning 3-1 both home and away. Al Hilal lost last year’s final to Urawa Red Diamonds but looks determined to reclaim the title it won in 2021.

For Al Ittihad, advancing to the quarter-finals was slightly more complicated. Gallardo’s side emerged as group winners with five victories from six – defeat to Iraq’s al-Quwa al-Jawiya the only blot on its copybook. In the last-16, a hard-fought 0-0 away draw to Uzbekistan’s Navbahor Namangan was followed by a dramatic come-from-behind win in Jeddah, Toma Tabatadze’s late own goal securing a 2-1 triumph and a spot in the quarter-finals.

Prediction:

 The AFC Champions League has been a welcome respite for Al Ittihad from a dismal domestic campaign, but Al Hilal has been simply unstoppable and should advance.

Al Ain (UAE) vs Al Nassr (Saudi Arabia)

Traditional UAE powerhouse Al Ain has been undergoing a resurgence of late under the guidance of coach Hernan Crespo, who won the 1996 Copa Libertadores title with River Plate as a teammate of Al Ittihad boss Marcelo Gallardo. Similar to quarter-final opponent Al Nassr, Al Ain currently occupies a ‘best of the rest’ position in its domestic league, in second place but far adrift of runaway leaders Al Wasl.

Al Ain is the most successful ever Emirati club with a record 14 UAE Pro League titles and became the first and only team from the Gulf nation to win the AFC Champions League in 2003. A beaten finalist in 2005 and 2016, the last time Al Ain last made it to the quarter-finals was in 2017 when it lost to a Saudi opponent – eventual runners-up Al Hilal.

Al Ain won five of its six group matches this year, losing at home to Uzbek team Pakhtakor only after it had already qualified as group winners. It faced Uzbek opposition again in the last-16, drawing 0-0 away to Nasaf in the first leg and going 1-0 down in the second leg in the UAE before a second-half fightback – capped by Soufiane Rahimi’s stoppage-time winner – secured a quarter-final berth.

Waiting for Crespo’s side is Al Nassr, which it is easy to forget nearly didn’t even qualify for the AFC Champions League group stage. The three late goals from Sultan Al-Ghannam, Talisca and Marcelo Brozović that secured a last-gasp play-off victory over Shabab Al Ahli seems a world away and since that August night, Al Nassr has looked a far more assured outfit.

Luis Castro has put together a well-oiled unit, led by the twin talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Talisca, who have scored five and six goals in the competition so far respectively. They are capably supported by the likes of Brozovic and Sadio Mane, though the latter has yet to really announce himself in the AFC Champions League – aside from a single goal in the 4-3 group stage victory over Al Duhail.

Al Nassr comfortably finished top of its group with four wins and two draws before putting fellow Saudi Pro League side Al Fayha to the sword in the last-16. Ronaldo, ever the man for the major occasion, scored in both legs as Al Nassr went through in fairly comfortable fashion with a 3-0 aggregate win.

Prediction:

 Al Nassr has more big-game players and with Ronaldo determined to add the AFC Champions League to his already bulging trophy cabinet, Castro’s team should be able to advance at the expense of Al Ain.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea) vs Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea)

The first of the East Asian quarter-finals is the ‘Hyundai Derby,’ which brings together South Korean clubs Jeonbuk and Ulsan. It means there will be at least one representative from the Land of the Morning Calm in the semis. Jeonbuk is a two-time AFC Champions League winner, claiming the trophy in 2006 and most recently in 2016 when fellow quarter-finalist Al Ain was beaten to the top prize. Ulsan has also been continental champion twice, sweeping aside Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in 2012 and defeating Persepolis 2-1 in 2020 – in a COVID-19-induced one-legged final played in Qatar.

Ulsan won the K-League title last year while Jeonbuk finished fourth, though the latter has been particularly active in the off-season transfer market, including raiding its rivals for veteran defender Tae-hwan Kim, as well as bringing in Nana Boateng from Romanian side CFR Cluj and left winger Hernandes from Incehon United.

Prediction:

 This all-Korean contest should be an excellent battle, but it is reigning K-League champions Ulsan that is the slight favourite to reach the semi-finals.

Shandong Taishan (China) vs Yokohama F. Marinos (Japan)

The final quarter-final sees Chinese side Shandong Taishan face 2022 Japanese champions Yokohama F. Marinos as the two teams – who finished second and first respectively in Group G in December – will be reunited for their second pair of matches in this season’s competition. In a remarkable end to that group, Shandong, Yokohama and Incheon United all finished on 12 points with identical head-to-head records, but the Korean club was eliminated because of its inferior goal difference in matches between the three sides.

Shandong, currently coached by ex-South Korea full-back Choi Kang-hee, has never advanced beyond the AFC Champions League quarters, most recently making it to the last eight in 2016 before losing on penalties to Sydney FC. It finished bottom of its AFC Champions League group in 2022 with just one point.

Yokohama F. Marinos goes into the tie as favourite after beating Shandong home and away in the group stage. Managed by ex-Australia and Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, Yokohama finished second in last season’s J.League but has historically struggled to make any impact in continental competition. The closest it has come is a final defeat to now-defunct Chinese team Liaoning Football Club in the 1991 Asian Club Championship.

Prediction:

 Although Shandong has more experience of this stage of the competition, current form – and two group stage victories – point to Yokohama advancing.

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