By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Al Hilal have reached the Asian Champions League final twice in the last six years only to fall at the final hurdle but on Saturday the Saudi club have the chance to take a major step towards breaking their continental trophy drought.
Last crowned Asian champions in 2000, Al Hilal host Urawa Red Diamonds in Riyadh in the first leg of the final in a re-run of the 2017 title match which the Japanese club won 2-1 on aggregate.
That defeat came three years after Al Hilal suffered a surprise 1-0 aggregate loss at the hands of Western Sydney Wanderers in the ACL final.
While six continental trophies from 1991 to 2002 marks the Saudi Arabian club out as one of the region’s most successful, the sting of those two defeats still lingers.
French striker Bafetimbi Gomis says the experience would stand them in good stead.
“Playing in the final of the Asian Champions League for the third time in six years eases the pressure on the players because they have the experience to win the title,” said Gomis.
“One of the targets I had when I signed for Al Hilal was to win the Asian Champions League and our ambition is to win the title.”
Former France international Gomis, who joined from Galatasaray in 2018, is one of the reasons Al Hilal have made it this far, with his 10 goals in 12 starts making him the competition’s top scorer.
His partnership with former Italy international Sebastian Giovinco has proved pivotal for a side featuring seven of the current Saudi national team and who lead the domestic standings.
That stands in stark contrast to the Urawa squad, with Tsuyoshi Otsuki’s side reaching the final despite struggling in domestic competition — the Reds are 11th in the J-League and in danger of being dragged into the relegation battle.
Their issues mirror those they endured in 2017 when they won the second of their Asian titles despite a slump on the home front.
Victory over Al Hilal would see Urawa become the first club to claim the title for a third time since the Asian Champions League era began in 2002.
Shinzo Koroki has been key to their run with the veteran striker scoring eight times as Otsuki’s side navigated their way through the earlier rounds.
But with Gomis in fine form for Al Hilal it will be Urawa’s defence, which will be shorn of first choice goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa due to suspension, that will be key for the Japanese.
The second leg will be held at Saitama Stadium on Nov. 24.
(Editing by Peter Rutherfordpeter.firstname.lastname@example.org; +822 6936 1482)