The AFC Champions League reaches the semi-final stage on Tuesday and Wednesday with two pairs of enticing match-ups. In west Asia on Tuesday, inaugural winners Al Ain visit hosts Al Hilal seeking to reach the final for a third time. The east zone sees last year’s finalists FC Seoul entertain debutants Western Sydney Wanders with both sides determined to go through.
Al Hilal-Al Ain
Even for neutral fans, the two sides are rivals in the semi-final stage for more reasons than one. Both teams are among the most seasoned campaigners in the competition, with Al Hilal making their tenth appearance in this competition and Al Ain their ninth. And they are two of the most successful clubs in Asia, with the Saudis twice winning the Asian Club Championship and the United Arab Emirates giants being inaugural Champions League winners.
The pair are certainly not short of Asian experience. Nor are they lacking in knowledge of each other. Al Hilal captain Yasser Al Qahtani had a brief spell with the UAE side two years ago, while Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic left the Riyadh giants to join his new team one game into this year's AFC Champions League campaign. The Saudi hosts will look to their exceptional home form which has seen Laurențiu Reghecampf's Blue Wave invincible so far in the 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium. The visitors can, for their part, take heart from their impressive away record including defeating Saudi club Al Ittihad 3-1 to seal a 5-1 aggregate quarter-final win.
It is also a clash between two of the campaign's best scorers. Topping the chart with 12 goals, Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan is expected to lead Al Ain's attack as they target an away win. But Dalic's charges should keep wary of Nassir Al Shamrani, Al Hilal's lethal weapon who was recently twice on target in their 2-1 home defeat of Najran for their third win out of four in the new domestic season.
The other attraction
If Al Hilal and Al Ain emerged the anticipated semi-finalists, then both FC Seoul and Western Sydney Wanders defied the odds to reach the last four. Despite storming to last year's final, the K League side rode their luck before edging Kawasaki Frontale and in-form Pohang Steelers en route to the semi-finals - both on penalties. It was, meanwhile, a process of history-making for the Australian debutants. The only A-League side to progress from the group phase, the Wanderers saw off Sanfrecce Hiroshima before stunning defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande to set up the FC Seoul showdown.
Having lost both captain Ha Daesung and striking-ace Dejan Damjanovic at the start of this season, Choi Yongsoo's much-depleted FC Seoul side must again count on their experiences and team-work against the visitors. Under the former Korea Republic goal-getter, the capital club have restored their place in the top five in the domestic league with three wins on a trot, including recording a 3-1 home win against Incheon United last Saturday.
Tony Popovic's outfit will rely on their trademark fighting spirit if they are to continue their fairytale run against the Koreans. The Wanderers arrive in Seoul fresh from a one-week training camp in Abu Dhabi, during which they came from a goal down to edge hosts Al Jazira in a friendly.
Player to watch
With striking-ace Tomi Juric, as well as Shannon Cole and Brendon Santalab suspended, the Wanderers face an uphill task at the Seoul World Cup Stadium. Understandably, Ante Covic's goalkeeping form will be key for the visitors if they are to come away with a satisfying result. Arguably the most experienced keeper in the tournament, the 39-year-old pulled off a string of heroics between the sticks as his side stormed into the last four.
23 - The number of goals scored by Al Ain from their ten outings, which establishes them as the tournament's best goal-scorers.
What they said
"To be placed amongst the four best teams in Asia is a superb achievement, but we want more. And I'm confident that we can make an even better result,” Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic