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Jeddah Giants Face Tough Task in AFC Soccer
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 12 - 03 - 2008

Ittihad and Al-Ahli face an uphill task when they kick off their campaign in the 2008 AFC Champions League on Wednesday.
Both teams have completed their preparations for the Asia's top club competition which is likely the last time in its current format. The AFC Champions League is set to be revamped in 2009 when it is set to be expanded from 28 to 32 teams with more prize money but stricter criteria for participation in an effort to raise standards.
Both the teams are aiming to keep the bright Saudi record. Al-Ittihad which wrote its name in the AFC Champions League twice in 2003 and 2004 will lock horns with Kuruvchi of Uzbekistan in the Group A opener at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah.
Meanwhile, Al-Ahli which flew to Qatar on Monday evening has a tough opponent in Al-Sadd in Doha.
The two-time winner Al-Ittihad will be eager to wrest the title after it was eliminated at the hands of Al-Karama of Syria in quarterfinals in 2006.
Al-Ittihad qualified for the competition after it won the Saudi League in 2007 by beating Al-Hilal 2-1 in the final. Tigers enjoy the top spot this year too with 47 points, eight points ahead of the second placed Al-Hilal.
With only two remaining matches in the league, Al-Ittihad will try to focus also on the AFC Champions League where the team was listed in Group A alongside with Uzbek's Kuruvchi, Sepahan of Iran and Al-Ittihad of Syria.
Wednesday's clash will not be easy for the Saudis as the Kuruvchi is determined to make its presence felt in its first appearance in the competition.
The unknown history of the Uzbek side made Al-Ittihad Brazilian coach Estevam Soares to go through video tapes. The coach who led the team to the top of the Saudi league will have a lot of choices in the midfield. His countryman Tcheco, who returned to Al-Ittihad after a short period in Brazil, has proved that he is the dynamo of the team.
Despite that, an inside source says that Soares may not field Tcheco from the beginning. Soares, however, was under criticism after a 1-1 draw with Al-Wehdah in the Saudi League match.
The Brazilian boss is expected to field Abdul Rahman Al-Qahtani instead of Manaf Abu Shaqair.
The defense is the strongest in the team with the 2005 AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al-Montashiri and Redha Tukar.
Al-Ittihad's frontline is also in fine shape especially after the Brazilian striker Magno Alves has sealed the win for the team on many occasions. Alves with Ghanaian Elhassan Kieta will create trouble for the Uzbek side which needs speed to deal with its rival strikers.
Al-Ahli, the second Saudi representative, will have to play against tough teams in Group C.
Beside Al-Sadd, there are the four-time qualifier Al-Wahdah of UAE, which reached the semifinals of the 2007 competition and the 2006 runner-up Al-Karama from Syria. The best season for Al-Ahli in the AFC Champions League was in 2005 when it reached quarterfinals.
Al-Ahli has doubts over midfielder Saheb Al-Abdullah while goalkeeper Yasser Al-Mosailem is expected to be replaced by Abdullah Al-Muaiouf. However, Brazilian midfielder Antonio Caio is available despite reports he would be out for three weeks.
“We are ready for our first match in the AFC Champions League against Al-Sadd,” said Al-Ahli coach Nebojsa Vuckovic. __


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