RSL leaders Al Hilal face tough continental test in Al Ain

Roshn Saudi League runaway leaders Al Hilal travel to neighbouring United Arab Emirates for one of their most important matches of the 2023-24 season, when they take on fellow Asian powerhouse Al Ain in the first leg of the AFC Champions League (ACL) semi-finals on Tuesday.

Jorge Jesus’ men are currently on a world record run of 34 consecutive wins in all competitions, which has them sitting comfortably at the top of the RSL table, 12 points clear of their nearest chasers Al Nassr with only seven matches remaining.

On the continent, Al Hilal are the most successful side in ACL history, having won the title four times (1991, 2000, 2019 and 2021). They have reached the continental final an impressive four times in the past six years, including last year when they lost to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds.

As they continue their pursuit of becoming the first Asian team to reach three consecutive ACL finals, Al Hilal find themselves facing the same manager in the last four for the second year in a row, in Al Ain’s Hernan Crespo. The Argentine legend was in charge of Qatar’s Al Duhail last year, where his team were demolished 7-0 by Salem Al Dawsari and Co in the one-legged semi-final.

Al Hilal head into Tuesday's match in confident mood having been crowned Saudi Super Cup winners last week following an emphatic 4-1 win over Al Ittihad - once more played in the UAE. However, the Riyadh side will have to do without the services of Aleksandar Mitrovic as the Serbian striker, with 22 goals in 22 RSL matches this season, continues his recovery from injury.

Posing a threat for Al Hilal's defence will be the 2023-24 ACL’s joint-top scorer, Soufiane Rahimi. The Al Ain squad also features former Al Taawoun playmaker Alejandro Romero (Kaku), with the Paraguayan international one of his team's focal creative outlets. Meanwhile, up front, prolific Togolese forward Kodjo Laba will look to add to his six goals in the competition.

The Emirati giants, Asian champions in 2003 and three-time finalists overall, overcame RSL heavyweights Al Nassr in the quarter-finals last month via a penalty shootout. In contrast, Al Hilal cruised to a 4-0 aggregate victory over current RSL champions Al Ittihad.

With the semi-final second leg taking place in Riyadh next week, the winner will book a date in the final against either Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos or Korea Republic’s Ulsan HD.