ACL: Al-Hilal v Al-Ahli Dubai (Semi-Final Preview)

We’re now coming to the business end of the AFC club calendar as we slide forward into the AFC Asian Champions League semi-finals. To look back on the quarter finals check out our round review here, while Martin Lowe looks towards the West Asian “final” between Saudi giants Al-Hilal and Emirates based Al-Ahli.

A tale of two Brazilian strikers

It’s a general theme about football across the globe, but particularly in Asia, that you’d expect to see a South American or two leading a club’s attack. While the vast majority tend to be recruited generally on their peers’ reputation, Tuesday’s first semi-final clearly illustrates that the recruitment policy is well worth continuing.

Carlos Eduardo (Al-Hilal) and Lima (Al-Ahli), both only signed from Portugal this summer, have effortlessly slotted in, excelling from the off in front of goal at the start of the domestic season but also continently in the ACL. Eduardo has shown willingness to link up, battle, and, maybe most surprisingly for an initially signed support striker, to lead Hilal’s front line.

The Brazilian, who signed after a pretty ineffectual spell at Porto, has already notched six goals in six appearances, including three in the quarter-final win over Lekhwiya. Every strike was that of a proven striker, showing poise, aerial ability and movement that will leave the fit-again Nasser Al-Shamrani enviously looking on from the sidelines. That’s the best compliment to be paid towards Eduardo, and strike partner Ailton’s immediate impact; simply Nasser who?

Lima, on the other hand, was brought in with one expectation: goals. And producing he is. Usurping Eduardo narrowly, Lima has recorded seven in his six matches, as Ahli initially looking to mount an improved title push this year, have consequently reinforced a credible continental push. Alongside an increasingly confident Ahmed Khalil in the ACL, and fellow blockbuster signing Moussa Sow, we’re already seeing the improvement desired.

Over the last few international windows, Brazilian coach Dunga has made a real statement in selecting Asian-based attacking players such as Diego Tardelli and Everton Ribeiro in his broadly European-based squad. While Ribeiro, a revelation at Ahli since his switch earlier in the year, has his best years ahead of him, Tardelli is pushing the twilight of his career, insisting form in Asia can force you right into the international picture.

Given Carlos Eduardo and Lima are averaging a goal a game at present, Brazil and Dunga could do much worse. Expect a live stream at the very least to beaming from Riyadh right across the world to Rio in the coming week.

Two of the most in form sides in West Asia

Outside the player focused centre piece of two in-form strikers, the other 20 players on the pitch haven’t done too bad over the last couple of months. Both sides are amongst the most in-form sides in the World let alone the region after near-faultless starts to their domestic seasons.

Al-Hilal have recorded 5 wins from 6 in all competitions, their only stumble proved immaterial in their quarter final victory over Lekhwiya. The rapid turn around from the end of last season to the beginning of this has been incredible, turning a meagre, stale and, at times, all too predictable side into a fluid, inventive and potent attacking unit thanks to a greater use of personnel, both the new recruits highlighted before and through previously sidelined domestic talent.

Giorgos Donis’ three man back line looked solid but lacked the transitional burst and personnel to succeed across the pitch. While experienced full back Al-Zori and midfield duo Pintili and Thiago Neves have either dropped off to the bench or moved out the door, fringe players such as Al-Shahrani and Al-Karbi have surpassed many people’s expectations by not only fitting in but improving the results on the pitch.

While the focus is quite clearly on the Brazilian duo up top for Hilal, the domestic supporting cast arguably deserve greater credit for their work ethic to break a pretty regular Hilal lineup from last season.

The same goes for Al-Ahli, Lima and Riberio haven’t been performing miracles on their own, they’ve simply added a creative focal point. The support cast again is an unassuming but effective blend of teamwork but also guile, something Ahli fans will have been calling for over a year. Ahli’s faith in coach Cosmin Olariou through the rough periods of late 2014 seemed to be wearing thin, but the Romanian has emphatically proved his critics wrong with his side’s performances since the summer.

Domestic talent is slowly rising to the top, something that’s only partially been noted by the national team picture. As Emirati expert Hamoudi from the Middle Eastern football site Ahdaaf told us on our joint podcast last month, Al-Ahli’s domestic stars alongside others in the Arabian Gulf League have been largely overlooked for rivals Al-Ain squad members. Habib Fardan-Abdulla, a centre midfielder with a brilliant engine and cool head, has had a fantastic few months, and is finally getting the appreciation he deserves.

Add him to a few familiar Emirati faces Ismail Al-Hammadi and the opinion splitting Ahmed Khalil, it’s little wonder Ahli have started like a train on fire. It’s a pretty close tie to call overall, but with a home tie to come and team harmony improving day-by-day, Ahli have turned from a team in crisis to a credible West Asian champion the whole region can stand behind.

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