ACL: Semi–Final (1st Legs Review)

Going into this week’s AFC Champions League semi-finals, it was up for debate who would sneak through to the continental final next month. And we weren’t to be disappointed with two intriguing, tense and, at times, controversial matches this week. With the return legs set to take place in three weeks’ time, James Eugene and Martin Lowe look back at two evenly-fought contests that has left everyone still proposing who will triumph.

Al-Hilal – Al-Ahli Dubai 1:1

  • Two powerful headers lead to an impasse and set-up an interesting second leg tie

This game had it all: brilliantly taken goals, legitimate penalty appeals rebuffed along with a dodgy penalty given and excellent last minute goalkeeping. The home side will definitely be disappointed with a draw, while the away side will feel slightly more confident going into the second leg with an away goal advantage.

In terms of attacking, there wasn’t much to report during the first half, although Al-Hilal were the better side to begin with as they enjoyed most of the possession in the early stages of the game. At one point, Al-Ahli’s goalkeeper Mahmoud comically attempts to deal with a cross and fails, forcing Salmin Khamis to acrobatically clear the ball to prevent his side from conceding a soft goal

The home side did have two penalty appeals turned down. Ailton was the victim in the first one after Al Burayk darted down the left flank and slid the ball to him, allowing the striker to skip past his marker, only to be dragged down by Al Fardan. The referee, who ignored all appeals from the first incident, was again questioned when Al-Dossary dribbled the entire length of the pitch during an Al-Hilal counterattack and was pushed down to ground in the opposition box, leaving the player visibly livid at the decision not to award his team a penalty.

The second half was much more exciting in terms of entertainment. Khaled Shrahili opened the second half with some comical goalkeeping and almost allowed Al Hammadi to score a tap in.

The intensity continued after this and almost culminated in the home side scoring, but Salem Aldawsari completely mishit the ball and scuffed it way over the target. He was forced to regret that attempt a few minutes later when Ribiero delivered a free kick into the box which was met by Lima, who drilled a header straight through the goalkeeper and put Al-Ahli ahead in the 56th minute, continuing his incredible goal scoring form with 8 goals in 7 games.

The away side’s lead was soon under threat when the referee controversially gave a penalty to Al-Hilal. Salmin Khamis picked up the ball after assuming that it had rolled out for a goal kick. However, the referee and his official thought otherwise and penalised his decision to handle the ball .After some deliberating with the referee, Eduardo stepped up for the home side, sent his shot to the bottom right corner but it ended up smashing the post and going out for a throw in, allowing Al-Ahli to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

With the closing stages of the game fast approaching, Al-Hilal were throwing players forward in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the game. They were rewarded for their efforts in the 82nd minute when Ailton leaped high into the air and directed a powerful header to equalise and provide a chance for the home side to potentially win the game.

Khalid Sharahili will walk away with his head held high after the game, especially after his heroics in extra time. Al-Ahli manged to break during the last minute of the game, and, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, failed to place the ball past Sharahili who pulled off not one, but two spectacular saves and keep the game level. Many would criticise the striker for not finishing the game off, but the goalkeeper’s saves were truly immense.

“We succeeded in what we wanted to do and overall it is a positive result,” said Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu. His side have an advantage going into the second leg on Tuesday 20th October, where both sides will need to give more than 100% if they want to reach the final.


Guangzhou Evergrande – Gamba Osaka 2:1

  • Gamba’s well thought game plan leaves the Japanese champions in a strong position.

When we previewed this encounter earlier this week, the key question was how Gamba Osaka were going to approach a tough away assignment in Guangzhou. The home side Evergrande’s game was in no doubt, predictable domination in terms of possession and territory was expected and demanded by the fan base, but how they would cope with playing a first leg at home (only their second time in the last 4 ACL seasons) was the only underlying tactical quandary.

Gamba took the early lead in terms of the tactical battle however, happy to get men behind the ball when the Chinese were in possession before committing numerous men forward on the transition. Of course, this energy-sapping approach isn’t a wholly sustainable route over the whole 90 minutes, so they will have been thankful that it provided results within the first quarter of an hour.

A burst of speed and some neat interplay sent Hiroyuki Abe down the right for his cross to be bundled in by Patric, who was a threat throughout the match, off the unsuspecting and struggling Feng Xiaoting’s head into his own net. An early breakthrough that meant Gamba could pick and choose their attacks, and that they did, but for some flurries immediately after the goal they generally sat back.

The pressure (not that it hadn’t been previously) was back on Guangzhou, the stress for both the fans and the immediately hot-under-the-collar Scolari had risen as Guangzhou compounded pass after pass in the final third, and were left too often frustrated by a series of over-complicated moves or wasteful finishing from too far out. But for Huang Bowen’s stunner Gamba would have led at half-time.

Now, we don’t want to gloss over Huang’s equaliser at all. A rare moment of genius, in otherwise plenty of back and forth predictable attacks, the midfielder who often infuriates had one of his good moments, one round later from his thunderbolt against Kashiwa in the quarters.

His half volley this time was a prime example of awareness (for dissecting the offside line) before allowing time to hit the ball on the half volley with a twisted body past the helpless Higashiguchi. It is well worth a watch if you missed it yesterday.

The second half brought a little more endeavour from the CSL champions, with no immediate tactical knee jerks from Scolari, and eventually their pressure proved too much with skipper Zheng Zhi heading in from Elkesson’s cross after a culmination of sustained pressure on the Gamba goal.

Moving forward both will be happy for different reasons; Guangzhou travel to Osaka with an advantage despite being off the boil, while Gamba displayed a good counterattacking point, an away goal and crucially the knowledge that they can hurt Evergrande, especially through the physicality of Brazilian striker Patric.

Both also have room for improvement. Scolari won’t let this frustrating performance pass without working on key improvements, while Usami who largely was absent from Gamba’s attacking flow will hope to display a greater form next time around. For now, a wonderfully laid matchup is set for the second leg.


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