By Michael Church
TOKYO, Feb 8 (Reuters) – When Al Hilal last year became the first club from Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Champions League since 2005, they not only ended their nation’s 14-year title drought, they reignited their rivalry with cross-Riyadh rivals Al Nassr.
As the latest edition of Asia’s premier club competition kicks off on Monday, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in China and elsewhere in the continent’s east, teams in the west go into the group phase with a renewed sense of optimism following Al Hilal’s resounding win a little more than two months ago.
The Saudi side’s success, which came with a victory over Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in November’s final, was the first by a team from their half of the continent since 2011. The manner in which it was achieved has increased expectation of further success for teams from the Persian Gulf region.
Al Hilal begin the defence of their title against Iran’s Shahr Khodro on Monday evening, while 24 hours later bitter rivals Al Nassr will be looking to make a statement of intent as they launch their attempt to win the competition for the first time with a Tuesday fixture against Qatar’s Al Sadd – who lost to Al Hilal in last year’s semi-finals.
“We’ve got a really good team,” said Al Nassr midfielder Mukhtar Ali, a graduate of Chelsea’s academy currently on loan from Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem.
“We beat Al Hilal before they won the Champions League, so a lot of players are saying: ‘If we can put a good run of games together we can do it.’
“That’s the sense I get from all the players. We can do it for sure. Everyone’s positive.
“When the Champions League starts again, we start from the beginning and try to win it. We want to win every cup. The league, the cup and the Champions League.”
Al Nassr bring a strong pedigree into the competition, having won the Saudi league title last season.
Moroccan striker Abderazzak Hamdallah will lead the charge for coach Rui Vitoria’s side, with the former Guangzhou R&F forward’s strike rate of 49 goals in 34 games in Al Nassr’s domestic title win sure to cause opposing defences significant concern.
“He’s so good,” says Ali of his prolific team mate.
“You see it in training every day. He wants to score his goals. For our team, it’s amazing to have a player like that.”
Al Nassr will be looking to make an impact on the continental scene for the first time since winning the Asian Cup Winners Cup in 1998, but face a tricky group after also being drawn to face Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Sepahan.
South Korea duo Jeonbuk Motors and Ulsan Hyundai, both former winners, will carry the main threat in the eastern half of the draw while Chinese clubs, led by two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande, will seek to overcome the disruption to their preparations caused by the coronavirus lockdown.
(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)