Al Ahli face Asia’s biggest test

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Al Ahli

The task facing Al Ahli is a formidable one, arguably the toughest in Asian club competition – at home in front of a raucous crowd at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.

Their Arabian Gulf League rivals, Al Ain, know that all too well; cast aside 3-0 at this stage of the tournament last year. The Saudi giants, spurred on arguably the most hostile and passionate fans in Asia, are unbeaten at home in the in their last 12 matches. It is a daunting place to play for visiting teams.

One man who knows that better than most is Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ahli’s manager, who spent three successful years with the Saudi club from 2007-09.

“I know them, they know me,” he said this week. “We have a special relationship, but the game is the game. They have the pressure of the public and the supporters.”

Certainly all the pressure is on Al Hilal, who will go into the match as the clear favourites.

Still scarred after dominating last year’s final but not being able to find the back of the net, this year has all been about redemption for the two-time winners of the Asian Club Championship, the predecessor to the .

Far from being burdened by the pressure, Al Hilal coach Georgios Donis expects the support will drive his team in the first leg.

“It is our duty to have the trust of our fans so that they can give us a big push in the match tomorrow,” he said.

“I expect that our fans will show up in big numbers and hopefully they can play an important role to motivate the players.”

One player who won’t be there, for either leg, is trusty Brazilian defender Digao, who scored in the quarter final second leg against Lekhwiya.

The 27-year-old, formerly of Fluminense, was this week suspended by the AFC for two matches for an off-the-ball incident, in which he kicked Lekhwiya’s Tunisian midfielder Youssef Msakni, in the match against Lekhwiya.

An ever present alongside Korean international Kwak Tae-hwi in the centre of defence, his absence will be good news for Al Ahli who boasts one of the most threatening attacks in the competition.

Former Benfica striker has hit the ground running with five goals in four matches, joining fellow Brazilian Everton Ribeiro and UAE internationals Ahmed Khalil and Ismail Al Hammadi in an attack that has scored 10 goals in their first two AGL games this season.

Olaroiu praised Lima and the impact the Brazilian has had so far, particularly with fellow striker Ahmed Khalil.

“Rodrigo Lima has helped us a lot,” he said. “He’s a player that we need and we missed in the second part of the season last year.

“He’s a very clever player and has also increased the level of Ahmed Khalil. We talked to him about doing something and raising the level of Khalil in a few things, to let him do what he does better.

“He’s the striker that we need and I’m very happy for both of them.”

What Olaroiu needs now is his star striker to deliver when it matters most.