February 27 – World Club Cup finalists Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia are still on course to retain their AFC Champions League title having qualified for the west zone semi-final.
The Saudis, managed by Argentinean Ramon Diaz, beat Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan FC 1-0. They now face Qatar’s Al Duhail SC tonight for a place in two-legged final against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds. That tie will be played April 29 and May 6, with the second leg in Saitama, Japan.
Al Hilal are looking to win their third AFC Champions League title in four years. If they beat the Qataris, it will put them into their fifth final in nine years.
The win against Foolad Khouzestan though was hard won, with the Saudis not securing victory until the Moussa Marega scored in the 87th minute.
“The players played with total commitment and passion. It has not been easy for them to go straight into the AFC Champions League after the FIFA Club World Cup,” said Diaz.
“They have played a match every three days but remained focused (against Foolad). We faced a very strong team who made it very intense for us.”
While the Saudis are seasoned Champions League campaigners, Al Duhail have made it through to their first semi-final.
Kenyan striker Michael Olunga was the hero with both goals against Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab FC in a 2-1 win.
After a tight first half which saw the teams equally matched, Olunga scored in the 77th and 85th minutes. Al Shabab netting a consolation through Saeed Al Rubaei in added time.
Like Al Hilal, Al Duhail have an Argentinean coach in Hernan Crespo. The two coaches know each other well. Crespo played under Diaz at River Plate in Argentina when the won the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores in 1996.
“It will be a very tough game against a great team. But we are also a great team and step by step, we have been rewriting history for our club and we want to keep going,” said Crespo.
“Al Hilal are the defending champions and are greatly experienced but I have been telling my players that if you want to become champions, you must beat the champions.
“Yes, they have a lot of experience. Less than a month ago, they beat Flamengo (in the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2022). They then played a great match against Real Madrid (in the final). We have great respect for them but our motivation is to reach the final and we have a great opportunity.”
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