Al Ain tasked with halting Al Hilal juggernaut in Asian Champions League semi-finals

Saudi giants face the UAE side on Tuesday on a world record run of 34 successive victories

Soufiane Rahimi starred for Al Ain against Al Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarter-finals. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Can anyone stop Al Hilal?

It’s a conundrum that’s confounded the Saudi side's past 34 opponents, dating all the way back to September, spanning five countries and four separate competitions.

When they reached 28 wins, it was an apparent world record, recognised by Guinness. Hilal have since surpassed that mark, last week’s 2-0 win in the Saudi Super Cup final against Al Ittihad in Abu Dhabi lifting them to 34 consecutive victories.

The Riyadh side sit as champions-elect in the Saudi Pro League, unbeaten thus far and 12 points clear with seven rounds remaining. Later this month, they contest the semi-finals of the coveted King’s Cup.

Across the next eight days, Hilal will aim to tee up a second successive Asian Champions League final, when they take on Al Ain across two legs in the last four. Hilal stand as record champions of the continent, with four titles. Runners-up last year, they triumphed in two of the previous three finals.

So that’s what faces Al Ain ahead of Tuesday’s first leg in the Garden City. They are fighting both the present and the very recent past.

Yet the UAE side have pedigree, too, in Asian football’s premier club competition. They remain the only Emirati team to lift the trophy, even if that came more than two decades ago. Al Ain are one of only two from the country to contest a Champions League final; the most recent, in 2016, was their third appearance in the showpiece.

While not quite as impressive as Hilal, Hernan Crespo’s men had embarked on their own remarkable run from December, rattling off 11 wins and a draw from a 12-match stretch. The sequence included the upset victory in the Champions League quarter-final against Al Nassr, Hilal’s Riyadh rivals and closest challengers in the 2023/24 Saudi top-flight.

Al Ain went up against Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Otavio, Marcelo Brozovic, Aymeric Laporte and Co, and emerged victorious. The tie was ultimately decided on penalties in the Saudi capital, but Al Ain outplayed their lofty opponents for the majority of the two legs.

But, having returned from their Riyadh high with a follow-up victory in the Adnoc Pro League, winning 4-0 at Ajman to stay second in the standings, Al Ain have since faltered.

They have not won in four, losing three of those. They exited the President’s Cup at the quarter-final stage to Kalba, and are all but out of the domestic title race. Al Ain lie third, 12 points behind leaders Al Wasl.

Al Ain defeat Al Nassr in quarter-finals

The Champions League, then, offers respite to the recent regression. Crespo, in his debut season at the club, would probably wish for a more straightforward route to continental success, but he will relish the challenge also.

Al Ain clearly did in the last round, when they embraced their underdog tag and set about Nassr like their lives depended on it. They reaped their reward.

In the absence of top goalscorer Kodjo Laba, Sofiane Rahimi lead the line and was inspired. The Moroccan scored the only goal of the initial encounter at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, had two more disallowed, and ran Nassr ragged (he would strike twice also in the away leg).

Collectively, Al Ain were committed, convinced in their game plan to not allow Nassr to settle, and confident in their ability to hurt their opponents.

An even greater effort is required again, at the same venue, on Tuesday night. No doubt, Hilal are superior to Nassr – they have proved as much this season, defeating their cross-city foes three times – and have handled with little fuss the long-term injury to Neymar and the recent short-term issue with Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Serbian, with 33 goals in 35 competitive matches since his summer move from Fulham, will not feature against Al Ain.

Written off somewhat heading into the semi-final, the 2003 champions once more have a point to prove, again have something to push back against. So too Crespo, after the Argentine helmed the Al Duhail side who succumbed to a 7-0 defeat to Hilal in last year’s one-legged semi-final in Doha.

But in Rahimi, the returning Laba, midfielders Kaka and Matias Palacios, Crespo possesses the guile and the grit to shock Jorge Jesus’ apparently impenetrable team.

Of course, it will require one more seismic endeavour; most probably two. Al Ain will need fortitude and possibly some fortune as well to halt Hilal's well-greased winning machine.

For sure, though, a positive result at home on Tuesday feels the only way forward if they are to advance to the final against all odds.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 9:25 AM