As familiar foes meet again in AFC Champions League final, Al Hilal and Urawa Red Diamonds are every bit Asian football's modern-day rivalry

For the third time in seven years, Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal will face off in the final of the AFC Champions League -- the only two teams to have met in the competition decider more than once. Masashi Hara/Getty Images

In a continent as large and diverse as Asia, it is not often that easy to come across a continental footballing rivalry rich in history.

After all, the AFC Champions League is as competitive as it is unpredictable.

So considering no two teams had previously met each other more than once in the final until as recently as 2019, the fact that Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal will now face off in the decider for a third time in six seasons illustrates how they have now forged Asian football's moden-day rivalry.

The head-to-head ledger is currently tied at 1-1 with Urawa emerging triumphant in their first meeting back in 2017, before Al Hilal exacted revenge two years later.

Both sides will renew hostilities on Saturday in the first leg at Riyadh's King Fahd International Stadium, before doing it all over again in the return encounter at Saitama Stadium 2002 on May 6.

This ever-intensifying rivalry is all the more remarkable considering how rare it is in the continent, especially compared elsewhere.

In its 56-year history, since its first iteration as the Asian Champions Club Tournament, the ACL has produced 24 different champions but only Al Hilal and Urawa have ever faced off more than once in the final.

In comparison, the tournament's European counterpart -- the UEFA Champions League -- has been in existence for 12 more years yet has only crowned 22 separate winners.

There have been nine previous occasions in the UCL where there has been a rematch of a previous final going as far back as 1959 when Real Madrid beat Stade de Reims for the second time in three seasons to claim their fourth of five consecutive titles.

But only once has third final meeting between two clubs -- Real and Liverpool in 1981, 2018 and 2022.

It is fitting that it is two of European football's most-successful teams that can lay claim to the fiercest rivalry in terms of UCL final encounters yet, what took them 41 years to accomplish has been realized by Al Hilal and Urawa just six years on from their first meeting in the ACL decider.

Likewise, it is hard to argue with these two teams being the main characters of Asian football's modern-day -- and perhaps only -- rivalry.

Both are long considered powerhouses of the continent with Al Hilal the record four-time and defending champions, while the Reds are not far behind with two titles to their name.

On paper, Al Hilal look the favourites for that final, especially for Saturday's first leg when they will have home advantage.

And it what has been a disappointing campaign on the domestic front, with Al Hilal currently fourth in the Saudi Pro League and almost certain to fail in their quest to retain that title, winning the ACL could be the only way to salvage their season.

Underdogs or not, however, Urawa can never be dismissed.

They were not even regarded as frontrunners to get this far in a East Zone that was littered with contenders, yet rose to the occasion like they usually do in this competition.

The Reds have also made a decent start to the new J1 League season -- finding themselves fourth on the table after nine rounds -- and could have the benefit of being fresher than their upcoming opponents.

Either way, the form book usually goes out the window when two rivals face off.

And as unlikely as it may seem given their geographical distance and lack of any traditional history, Al Hilal and Urawa are certainly Asian football's biggest rivals right now given what they have combined to accomplish in recent times.