x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Saudi's last big hope

Two Asian Champions League stalwarts meet at the quarter-final stage with Al Ittihad looking to put a smile back on the face of Saudi Arabian football.

Kawasaki's Juninho, left, challenges Grampus midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa on Wednesday.
Kawasaki's Juninho, left, challenges Grampus midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa on Wednesday.

Two Asian Champions League stalwarts meet at the quarter-final stage today with Al Ittihad looking to put a smile back on the face of Saudi Arabian football by eliminating Pakhtakor, of Uzbekistan. It was all looking good for fans in the Kingdom in May as all four of their teams progressed through the group stage to the second round, but only the club from Jeddah survived. To make matters worse, the national team crashed out of qualification for the 2010 World Cup earlier this month and Ittihad's key striker Naif Hazazi in was injured in the process.

Fortunately for Saudi supporters, Ittihad are unbeaten in the competition this year and know how to win it. They lifted the trophy in 2004 and then defended it in style in 2005, scoring 20 goals in six games in the knockout stage thanks to big-names such as Mohammed Kallon, Joseph Desire-Job and Tcheco. That trio are long gone, as have expectations of an Asian dynasty, but coach Gabriel Calderon, the last man to steer Saudi Arabia to the World Cup, has been active in the transfer market trying to build a front-line of similar quality to complement 2005 survivors such as Mohammed Noor and Hamad Al Montashari.

Two on-loan strikers have arrived. Argentine striker Luciano Leguizamon came from Arsenal de Sarandi in Argentina, while young Tunisia forward Amine Chermiti was borrowed from Hertha Berlin, fourth in last year's Bundesliga. However, Ittihad will be without the suspended duo of Saudi Arabia defender Osama Al Harbi and Oman midfielder Ahmed Hadid. Pakhtakor have appeared in all seven of the Asian Champions League tournaments so far, but are not the force they used to be.

The team from Tashkent lost some of their best players, including Uzbekistan international goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov, to city rivals Bunyodkor and are currently 18 points behind the leaders. With the emergence of their wealthy neighbours as the major force in Uzbekistan, Asia offers Pakhtakor their best chance for glory. They will have to do without international striker Farhod Tadjiyev, who is suspended while the Under 20 World Cup has robbed them of five youngsters.

Coach Victor Djalilov is looking to make the most of home advantage. "Our game against Al Ittihad will be one of our most important matches this season," he said. "We've been studying their game style and their players, so I hope we can make the most of any weaknesses." Hope is keeping Pakhtakor going in what is likely to be their last chance of success. Ittihad may not be of the standard of 2005, but they still look too strong for the Central Asians.

sports@thenational.ae Pakhtakor v Al Ittihad, KO 5.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1