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Al-Ittihad look to supporters to help them halt unstoppable Hilal in AFC Champions League

JEDDAH: It goes without saying that any Classico between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal is huge.

When it is in the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League then it becomes even bigger, with the Riyadh giants 2-0 ahead from the first leg and in sight of a place in the last four as they chase a record fifth title.

There have been big all-Saudi Arabian meetings on the continental stage before but there is something unique about Tuesday’s second leg clash in Jeddah.

If Al-Hilal win, it will be a 28th straight victory in all competitions. To say this would be a magnificent achievement is true and reflected in the fact that it would set a new world record for the number of consecutive wins.

At the moment, they are level on 27 with The New Saints. The Welsh team reached that landmark in the 2016-2017 season, breaking a long-standing record of 26 that had been set in the early seventies by Dutch giants Ajax.

Now Al-Hilal can set their own record to go alongside the club’s impressive trophy haul. It is understandable that coach Jorge Jesus is trying to play it down.

“The win record is a secondary plan that has come about. If the record comes about, it is history for the players, the coach and the club,” the Portuguese boss said Monday. “It’s a world record but it’s not a title — titles are the league, the cup and the Asian Champions League. It’s true that the more you win then the closer you are to achieving your objectives, and we welcome that.”

Jesus is close to achieving something that no other coach in history has done. It is a record that could stand for decades. As well as the undoubted talent that there is in the team, this streak is testament to the sheer winning mentality that exists in the blue corner of Riyadh. It is simply incredible.

However, a win at a passionate King Abdullah Sports City stadium remains one of the toughest challenges that exists in Asian football, regardless of current form.

Al-Ittihad may not be at their most fluent this season but they are still the defending Saudi Arabian champions. They may be without N’Golo Kante — after the midfielder was sent off in the first leg — and star striker Karim Benzema, who is recovering from injury, but there is still Fabinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah, Romarinho, Ahmed Hegazi and others to contend with.

Then there are the fans. There will be 60,000 present for the big game. The atmosphere will be intense. Of course, for those supporters the priority is to get to the last four of the continental competition and to stay in with a chance of winning it for the first time since 2005. To come back from a two-goal deficit against their Riyadh rivals would make it one of the most famous and celebrated nights in the history of the club.

The world record adds a different element for Al-Ittihad too. Even if the Tigers cannot overturn that two-goal deficit against the most in-form team in the world they can stop their bitter rivals from setting a new world record. That would be some consolation.

“The game is not over yet,” said Ittihad boss Marcelo Gallardo. “We still have a chance to reach the next round and we have the support of our fans. We have a great opportunity and we are excited.”

Al-Ittihad may not be close to the kind of form that Al-Hilal are enjoying — nobody is — but at least followed the first-leg loss with a 2-1 win over Al-Okhdood to move to fourth in the table.

The Blues picked up win number 27 on Friday with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Al-Riyadh to go 12 points clear at the top. It means they can focus on the second leg especially as Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic were rested and are now available to start.

“Sergej and Ruben are among the players that have played the most minutes this season. I felt that after the last game against Ittihad that they were a little bit tired,” said Jesus. “They are fundamental players in the team and it’s important that we have them well recovered. It’s also important we can recover Salem (Al-Dawsari) for the next match.

“We didn’t show a lot of freshness (against Al-Riyadh), but we showed enough to achieve the target of winning the game. We are prepared for Ittihad in the Champions League.”

And prepared to make history.

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