By Michael Church
HONG KONG, Feb 18 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal will resume their quest for a record-extending fifth Asian Champions League crown on Monday, a little over a week after finishing as runners-up behind Real Madrid at the FIFA Club World Cup.
The Riyadh-based outfit, who won their fourth Asian title in 2021, lost 5-3 to the European champions in Morocco last Sunday and this week travel to Doha, where the familiar face of Shabab Al Ahli coach Leonardo Jardim will greet the Al Hilal players.
It was the Portuguese coach who led the club to their record fourth title in 2021 with victory over South Korea’s Pohang Steelers, only for the former Monaco tactician to leave Al Hilal three months later.
He has since signed on with Dubai-based Shabab Al Ahli and now stands between Al Hilal and a place in the quarter-finals as the club from Saudi Arabia seeks to extend their dominance of the continental championship.
Currently led by Argentina’s Ramon Diaz, Al Hilal will be one of eight teams from west and central Asia battling for a place in the final, where they will meet Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds over two legs on April 29 and May 6.
The Japanese side progressed through the knockout rounds for the eastern half of the continent back in August in a campaign that has been disrupted by COVID-19 and Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in November and December.
Al Hilal are one of three sides from Saudi Arabia travelling to Qatar for the knockout phase, with the defending champions joined by Al Shabab and Al Faisaly in the round of 16.
Al Faisaly also play on Monday when they meet Iran’s Foolad, one of only two clubs from the country to have featured in this year’s competition after Tehran giants Persepolis and Esteghlal were prevented from entering due to licensing issues.
On Sunday Al Shabab, including former Argentina midfielder Ever Banega, will attempt to prevent Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi from reaching the quarter-finals.
Al Duhail, meanwhile, will go into the meeting with their Qatari compatriots Al Rayyan as favourites to advance given their status as Qatar Stars League leaders.
Hernan Crespo’s team top the domestic standings by four points from nearest rivals Al Arabi, with Al Rayyan languishing in ninth in the 12-team division, 21 points adrift of the summit.
Teams meet in the round of 16 on Sunday and Monday in Qatar with the draw for the quarter-final clashes due to take place on Tuesday.
The last eight encounters will be played on Thursday and the semi-final will be held on Feb. 26, with the winner advancing to the two-legged final against Urawa.
(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong; Editing by Stephen Coates)