Football Tribe SEA Editor
Third time is indeed the charm for Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal. They have finally won their third AFC Champions League title, their first since 2000 and the first title in the current competition format, after beating Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan 2-0 (3-0 on aggregate) at the Saitama Stadium 2002 last night. The triumph meant that Al-Hilal have equaled Pohang Steelers of South Korea’s record of three AFC Champions League title, joining them as the most successful club of the competition.
Coming into last night’s match with a slender 1-0 advantage, Al-Hilal knew that they must get the job done in Saitama in order to fully clench their grasp on the ACL title. Al-Hilal’s most recent ACL final appearances in the current competition format have ended in defeat – losing the 2014 and 2017 finals to Western Sydney Wanderers of Australia and Urawa respectively – and they’re determined to end the heartbreak in third opportunity presented to them. To that end, Al-Hilal head coach Răzvan Lucescu decided to go all out with his starting eleven, which included heavy hitters such as Bafétimbi Gomis, Sebastian Giovinco, first leg match-winner André Carrillo, and Saudi internationals Salem Al-Dawsari and Abdullah Otayf. On the other hand, knowing that continental glory is the only way to redeem their domestic struggles, Urawa head coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki went all out with his own starting lineup, which included season regulars such as Shinzo Koroki, Takahiro Sekine, Ewerton, Daiki Hashioka, Tomoaki Makino, and number one goalie Shusaku Nishikawa, who returns from suspension that kept him out of the first leg.
Spurred on by a sea of red that flocked the Saitama Stadium 2002, Urawa took the match to Al-Hilal, trying their best to claw back that one goal deficit. Both teams exchanged attack after attack, creating chances after chances, with Al-Hilal assuming control of the match from the get-go, thus limiting Urawa access to the ball. Despite Al-Hilal’s dominance in the first half, Urawa did carved up a number of chances thanks to Koroki, Kazuki Nagasawa, and Sekine, however the Saitama-based side failed to make their chances count and were denied their lifeline. Al-Hilal’s best chance in the first half was a Giovinco free-kick in the 39th minute, which went straight into the wall with the rebound being flagged offside. The first half ended goalless, with Al-Hilal holding the advantage in aggregate.
In the second half, Al-Hilal decided to up the ante, having playing a high-pressure scheme that left Urawa unable to establish their usual passing game. This meant that Urawa were deprived of the ball even more, and conceded a number of set-pieces as a result, effectively putting them on the back foot. Al-Hilal carved out a number of dangerous chances in the second half that slowly piled on the pressure on Urawa’s defense, before in the 74th minute, it gave way. A series of slick passing from the Al-Hilal players left the Urawa players dazed on the pitch, thus allowing Giovinco to feed Al-Dawsari with a superb pass. Finding himself unmarked as Urawa committed too many bodies forward, Al-Dawsari tapped the ball beyond Nishikawa’s reach, thus opening the scoreline. 1-0 on the night and 2-0 on aggregate, it was the perfect redemption for Al-Dawsari, who was sent off in the decisive second leg of the 2017 final.
Stung by Al-Hilal’s opener, Urawa pushed on for a goal as they hoped to mount a comeback. However it was not to be – with Urawa constantly pressing forward, their defense was exposed for Gomis to score his side’s second of the night and third on aggregate in injury time. Shortly after Gomis’ goal, referee Valentine Kovalenko of Uzbekistan blew for full time, sending Al-Hilal’s legion of 3000 fans, all of them being flown to Japan by planes ordered personally by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, into jubilant ecstasy.
It was a disappointing end for a remarkable continental campaign for Urawa, as they defied their own domestic form to earn themselves an appearance in the showpiece. However for Al-Hilal, it was the icing on the cake for a superb, consistent display that they’ve shown throughout the tournament. Gomis deservedly won the Most Valuable Player award of the 2019 ACL to go with his tournament top scorer award, while Lucescu was deservedly showered with bottles of water by his own players during the post-match press conference, all of them overjoyed by their continental title win.
The streets of Riyadh erupted into celebrations, with numerous Al-Hilal flags being flown across the city, car horns, cheering, and singing echoing throughout the streets of Riyadh, and an overall celebratory and festive mood setting itself into the city. The feeling of celebrations spread throughout Saudi Arabia as well, as they braced to welcome their newly crowned kings of Asia home.
While Urawa has to contend with a tough away tie against title-chasing FC Tokyo in Matchweek 33 of the J.League 1 this Saturday, Al-Hilal will set off to Qatar this December after three Saudi Pro League matches against Al-Ahli, Al-Faisaly, and Al-Adalh. There, Al-Hilal will join Brazilian giants Flamengo, English powerhouses Liverpool, Mexican aces Monterrey, Tunisian behemoths Esperance de Tunis, New Caledonian side Hienghene Sport, and Qatari giants Al-Sadd in the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup. Representing the champions of Asia, Al-Hilal will face off against African champions Esperance on December 14th in Doha, with the winners of that match facing off against Flamengo on December 17th.