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Kuala Lumpur: Al Hilal’s return to their second AFC Champions League final, after losing out to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, pits them against 2007 winners Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.

Ahead of the eagerly anticipated clash, takes a closer look at how the Saudi Arabian side have navigated their way to the main event for the second time in four years. 

Shifting defensive formations

Al Hilal’s (light blue) 4-3-3 formation in the 4-0 semi-final victory over Persepolis.

Unbeaten Al Hilal have conceded fewer goals per minute than any other side in the AFC Champions League – just 11 in 12 matches – meaning the prospect of top scorers Urawa is unlikely to faze the Riyadh outfit.

Coach Ramon Diaz has started games with four and five across the backline, but regular full-backs Yasir Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Burayk are given licence to surge forward.

The five-man defence came into play when they nullified the attacking prowess of Al Ain in securing a 0-0 away draw in the first leg of the quarter-finals.

How Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (6) stuck next to Omar Abdulrahman (10) in Al Hilal’s 3-0 victory over Al Ain.

Diaz then switched to four at the back in the return leg in Riyadh but brought in Abdulmalek Al Khaibri to chaperone Omar Abdulrahman throughout.

The defensive midfielder made the most interceptions (6) on the pitch and posted the highest number of recoveries (10) on his team to keep the playmaker quiet while Al Hilal went for the jugular to run out 3-0 winners.

The Argentine coach then opted for a 4-3-3 as Al Hilal overran Persepolis 4-0 in the first leg of the semi-final when the attacking Al Shahrani scored his first of the campaign before, with progression all but secured, caution intervened in the second leg as a five-man defence was installed and a 2-2 draw booked a return to the final.

Midfield options in abundance

Salman Al Faraj heatmap against Persepolis.

Al Hilal have an array of options in the centre of the park and out wide with Saudi Arabia internationals Salman Al Faraj and Abdullah Otayf, as well as South American duo Carlos Eduardo and Nicolas Milesi, key to their success.

Diaz often goes for three across the middle with Otayf – whose 94.53 percent passing accuracy is higher than any of the players likely to start the final – Al Faraj and Uruguayan Milesi sat behind the more attack-minder Brazilian Carlos Eduardo, who offers Syrian striker Omar Khribin support going forward.

Salem Al Dawsari created four chances, including two assists, against Persepolis.

Milesi’s four assists – two of which provided Carlos Eduardo with his opening two goals of a hat-trick against Al Ain – have proven crucial, while the midfielder has also weighed in with two goals of his own. But Diaz has strength in depth as seen when Al Khaibri was called upon in the last eight.

Another regular starter, Nawaf Al Abed, is missing the first leg of the final through injury, meaning Salem Al Dawsari may well be handed a starting berth.

The wide man killed off the Round of 16 clash against Esteghlal Khouzestan in the final 10 minutes after being brought off the bench, while he also created two goals when he started in the 4-0 victory over Persepolis and is a very able deputy to Al Abed.

Khribin the key threat


Khribin is Al Hilal’s main man up front, with the in-form Syrian striker the tournament’s joint-highest scorer – alongside Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk – on nine goals going into the final.

Khribin will be well aware that if he adds to his tally against Urawa he is likely to finish the campaign as the competition’s leading marksman.

The forward has already proven he is threat from both inside and outside the box as his hat-trick – a header, a close-range effort and a 20-yard strike – in the first leg of the semi-final against Persepolis showed.

He then followed that up with a coolly dinked penalty and a left-footed goal on the turn in the return fixture and is undoubtedly the continent’s form striker.

Elsewhere, Carlos Eduardo also has seven goals to his name, including his superb treble that saw the Saudi giants past Al Ain, meaning that between them Khribin and the Brazilian have scored 16 of their side’s 23 goals.

Khribin will likely spearhead a three-pronged attack in Riyadh with Carlos Eduardo and Al Dawsari just behind him.

Urawa have conceded six goals in three away knockout stage matches, giving themselves much to do in their home leg, and Al Hilal will fancy their chances of getting a positive result ahead of the long trip east.

Photos: Lagardère Sports