Saudi clubs seek success where national team fails

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 naturalized 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.