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Domestic rivals clash in quest for Asian Champions League final spots

Domestic rivals clash in quest for Asian Champions League final spots

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal in action in a league match against Al-Ettifaq at King Saud University Stadium, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

HONG KONG : Familiar foes face off in the battle for berths in next month's Asian Champions League final as Saudi Arabian duo Al Hilal and Al Nassr clash on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's meeting between South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai and Pohang Steelers.

The semi-final line-up guarantees a showdown between clubs from two of Asian football's leading nations, with teams from Saudi Arabia and South Korea due to meet in the final for the fourth time since 2004.

But before the title-deciding cross-continental clash on Nov. 23, it will be matters of a local nature that will dominate the build-up to this week's last four meetings.

Al Hilal have been among the dominant forces in Asian club football over the last three decades, but standing in their way of a second Asian Champions League title in three seasons are bitter Riyadh rivals Al Nassr.

The yellow side of the city has long lived in Al Hilal's shadow, only once reaching the final of Asia's premier club competition, when they lost to South Korea's Ilhwa Chunma in the 1995 Asian Club Championship.

By contrast, Al Hilal are one of the continent's most successful clubs, winning the Asian Club Championship in 1991 and 2000 before capturing the 2019 Asian Champions League.

Despite the history, however, little separates the current teams going into their meeting at Riyadh's Mrsool Stadium.

Both have 12 points from six games in the early standings in the Saudi Pro League and Al Hilal coach Leonardo Jardim is focused on ensuring his players have recharged after Saturday's 3-0 quarter-final win over Iran's Persepolis.

"It will be a game between the two big teams in Riyadh," said the former Monaco coach.

"The most important thing is the players, not the coaches. We believe that recovery is the most important factor so we go into the game fully prepared.

"Our objective is to reach the final."

In the eastern half of the draw, defending champions Ulsan Hyundai have already seen off domestic opposition in the shape of two-time winners Jeonbuk Motors, who Hong Myung-bo's team defeated 3-2 in extra-time on Sunday.

On Wednesday at Jeonju Stadium they meet fellow K-League side Pohang, who have struggled in recent years to hit the heights previously achieved by a club that dominated Asian football in the late 1990s.

During an illustrious playing career, Hong was part of the squad in 1997 that won the first of Pohang's back-to-back Asian Club Championship trophies and now he will look to mastermind Ulsan's attempt to emulate those consecutive titles.

No team has won successive Asian Champions League crowns since Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad in 2004 and 2005, with Ulsan looking to join Pohang and Al Hilal as Asia's only three-time continental club champions.

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Stephen Coates)

Source: Reuters

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