Gulf heavyweights clash for place in ACL final
The match will help decide who plays South Korea's FC Seoul or Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers
The Gulf's deadliest striker comes up against one of its most miserly defenses when Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal host Emirati club Al Ain in the first leg of their Asian Champions League semi-final in Riyadh on Tuesday.
A sell-out crowd of 67,000 is expected at King Fahd Stadium for a match that will help decide who plays South Korea's FC Seoul or Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers in a two-legged final starting next month.
Also at stake are bragging rights in the Gulf, a football-mad region that has struggled at both club and national team level over the past decade despite its vast wealth.
Al Ain have been the great entertainers in this year's ACL, shrugging off indifferent domestic form to plunder 23 goals in 10 games as they topped their qualifying group and won all four knock-out matches.
Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan is their talisman, netting 12 goals in the ACL, but the emphasis on attack has sometimes left Al Ain exposed at the back and the 2003 continental champions have managed only two clean sheets in the competition this term.
Gyan has been in sensational form since joining Al Ain in 2011, scoring 85 goals in 75 domestic games to help the club win back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, the last a record 11th crown.
At home, the club slumped to sixth last season following the departure of coach Cosmin Olaroiu, who promptly led Dubai's Al Ahli to the title.
Al Ain went through three managers in six months before the appointment in March of Croatian Zlatko Dalic, who led the club to victory five of their last seven league matches and the domestic President's Cup final.
He could provide the edge for Al Ain after having briefly coached Al Hilal last year.
"I'm playing against my former club, against players that I used to coach, so there are no big secrets," said Dalic.
"I know Al Hilal and their players very well, and also they know my style and my work. I respect Al Hilal as a team, but also I respect my players and my current club Al Ain and I believe we will move forward to the finals."
Al Hilal are Saudi Arabia's top club, having won the domestic championship a record 13 times, and were twice continental champions in 1991 and 2000 prior to its re-branding as the ACL.
Yet they struggled in their qualifying group and were bottom after three matches following two 2-2 draws and a 3-2 loss. The Riyadh team then won two and drew one of their remaining fixtures without conceding a goal.
Al Hilal trounced Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor 4-0 on aggregate in the last-16 before edging past Qatar's Al Sadd 1-0 in the quarter-finals to make it seven successive clean sheets.
Part of the credit for their parsimonious defence must go to coach Laurentiu Reghecampf, who led Steaua Bucharest to successive Romanian titles before joining Al Hilal in May.
The Blue Wave normally line up in a 4-4-2 formation with captain Yassar al-Qahtani and Nassir al-Shamrani leading the line.
Shamrani is Al Hilal's most likely source of goals, having topped the Saudi league's scoring charts in five of the last seven seasons and scored seven goals in this year's ACL.