West Asia Saudi Arabia

“Maregod” Guides Al-Hilal to AFC Champions League Glory

Former FC Porto man Moussa “Maregod” Marega scored once as his Al-Hilal side overcame Pohang Steelers 2-0 in Tuesday night’s 2021 AFC Champions League final. The Saudi Arabian giants’ win over their South Korean counterparts ensured that they became the most successful side in the ACL outright, with four titles to their name.

Al-Hilal’s clash with Pohang at the Mrsool Park in Riyadh was billed as the perfect ACL finale, both sides having the most successes in the tournament with three titles each to their name. Whoever wins Tuesday’s final showdown will become the outright kings of ACL, however in reality the odds were already well-stacked in Al-Hilal’s favor before kick-off.

The Saudi giants have secured their 17th Saudi Professional League title on May 23rd of this year and are still unbeaten in their current league campaign with five wins and four draws to their name after nine matches. Al-Hilal also has a number of quality players at their ranks, such as former Swansea City and Galatasaray striker Bafetimbi Gomis, former Villarreal and Valencia man Luciano Vietto, Peru international Andre Carillo, and of course, Marega himself, along with a cache of Saudi internationals such as Salem Al-Dawsari, Nasser Al-Dawsari, Yasser Al-Shahrani, and Abdullah Al-Hamdan.

Al-Hilal also has Leonardo Jardim as head coach, with the Portuguese having guided AS Monaco to the 2016/17 Ligue 1 title and a spot in the UEFA Champions League semifinal in the same season.

Compare and contrast with Pohang, who, while having a number of notable names as well such as Sin Jin-ho, Lim Sang-hyub, and Kang Sang-woo, were unable to break into this season’s K League 1’s top six. They were forced to play in the relegation play-offs that involve the league’s bottom six teams, however, they can be rest assured that they will be safe from relegation this season. Pohang are separated from last-placed Gwangju FC by 9 points with only two more games left to be played in the 2021 K League 1 season.

Despite this, underdogs Pohang knew how to spring a surprise or two in this season’s ACL, having eliminated favorites Nagoya Grampus and defending champions Ulsan Hyundai en route to Tuesday’s final.

Backed on by a sea of royal blue created by their loyal, fanatical supporters who packed the Mrsool Park stands, Al-Hilal went 1-0 up after just 14 seconds – the fastest goal in ACL final history. A long-range shot from outside the area by Nasser found its way into Lee Jun’s goal, giving the hosts the early lead.

With the early advantage firmly theirs, Al-Hilal proceeded to lower their tempo in an attempt to contain Pohang’s attacks. The strategy worked, with the South Koreans being unable to penetrate their way into the Al-Hilal defense. The Steelers could only muster one shot on target from two attempts throughout the first half, compared to Al-Hilal’s three.

Al-Hilal still retained their control of the game in the second half and with Pohang firmly on the back foot, the Saudis doubled their advantage in the 63rd minute. Gomis managed to excellently feed Marega with a through pass before the Mali international defeated Jeon Min-gwang for possession of the ball and blasting home past Jun to give Al-Hilal the insurance that they needed.

The Saudis then sat back, refusing to relent their pressure on Pohang for one bit, even threatening to make it 3 goals to nil after Gomis had gone wide with his 80th minute shot. In the end, Al-Hilal managed to see their two-goal advantage through to the end of the match, confirming their fourth ACL title as a result – the title of outright kings of Asia deservedly theirs.

With their ACL triumph, Al-Hilal will join Egypt’s Al-Ahly, Al-Jazira of the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand’s Auckland City, Mexico’s Monterrey, and English giants Chelsea in the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup, which will be held in the UAE early next year.