Saudis aim to turn around lean years

by AP on May 23, 2011

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The Saudi Arabian clubs enter the knockout stage of the Asian Champions League with a chance to give their nation's football fans something to cheer about after some lean years.

A traditional Asian powerhouse, Saudi Arabia has struggled in recent times. The national team failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and then crashed out of the 2011 Asian Cup in the first round.

At club level, this year has been much more successful. All four of the country's representatives made it safely through the group stage of the Asia Champions League.

The Round of 16 comprises one-off matches, with no home and away legs. The teams that finished on top of the eight groups of four in the group stage have home advantage.

In the big all-Saudi match, Al Ittihad welcomes bitter rivals Al Hilal in Jeddah on Tuesday.

Al Ittihad was the last team from the western half of the continent to lift the trophy in 2005 since when it has been the sole preserve of South Korea and Japan.

There is an extra edge to the game as Al Hilal is coached by Gabriel Calderon. The Argentine was fired by Al Ittihad in January 2010 just two months after winning the Saudi title and losing in the final of the 2009 Asian Champions League.

Now with Al Hilal, Calderon has repeated the championship feat in Riyadh and did so in style as his team remained unbeaten throughout the season.

"Our desire to advance played a big role in the results that we have had," Calderon said. "All the teams in the Round of 16 are big teams and they have shown good performances in the competition. The game against Al Ittihad will be tough and we will never underestimate them."

Dimitri Davidovic is the new coach of Al Ittihad and is starting his fifth spell at the club, replacing Portugal's Toni Oliveira just ahead of the big game.

The naturalised Belgian citizen led the club to the Saudi title on three occasions in the past but never to Asia's biggest club prize.

"I knew all about the important match in the Asian Champions League against Al Hilal before I came here. I know I can get a positive result," Davidovic said.

The other two Saudi representatives are away from home. Al Shabab travels to Qatar's Al-Sadd while Al Nassr visits the home of 2010 runners-up Zob Ahan of Iran.

Al Shabab's Croatian coach Dragan Skocic is looking forward to trying to take the team, which reached the semifinal under Uruguay's Jorge Fossati in 2010, to the latter stages once again.

"It is important that we reached the last 16," Skocic said. "We know what we have to do know and that is win in Qatar. Of course the game will be a tough one, but if we can match our performances from the first round then we can get the result we need."

Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor and Sepahan from Iran complete the quartet of matches from the western half of the continent.

In the eastern half of the draw, the eight teams are made up of four from Japan, three from South Korea and one from China.

Not all four from Japan will make it to the last eight as Osaka's two representatives, Cerezo and Gamba, meet in an eagerly awaited derby clash.

Gamba defender Satoshi Yamaguchi reflected the feelings of fans from both teams.

"The derby is certainly special," said Yamaguchi who won the 2008 title with Gamba. "Cerezo are the one team we really, absolutely do not want to lose to, especially at home in Asian competition. In a sense it does feel a bit of a waste that we have to play a Japanese team so early on, though. I would have liked to play them in the latter stages instead."

The remaining two teams from the J-League face tough trips to South Korea. Champion Nagoya Grampus is at Suwon Bluewings, while Kashima Antlers travels to FC Seoul.

Chinese hopes rest on Tianjin Teda though it must travel to the South Korean home of 2006 winners Jeonbuk Motors,who collected more points than any other in the group stage and currently sits on top of the K-League.