Al Hilal’s agonising 19-year wait to be crowned continental kings, once again, was emphatically ended on Sunday through Salem Al Dawsari’s and Bafetimbi Gomis’ second-half goals which earned a deserved 2-0 victory at Urawa Red Diamonds in the 2019 AFC Champions League final – and 3-0 aggregate success.
Sunday’s hosts – threatened by J1 League relegation – had been pummelled from the start in Riyadh and were particularly fortunate to escape with just a 1-0 deficit.
But a more-balanced opening was witnessed at Saitama Stadium 2002, the venue of 2017’s heart-breaking showpiece loss to the same opponent, with chances shared early on at both ends through Saudi Arabia winger Al Dawsari’s saved header and centre-back Abdullah Al Bulaihi’s brave block on former Japan Under-19 winger Takahiro Sekine’s goal-bound volley.
A searing second-half performance from Hilal – who’d also lost to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014’s decider – began with France centre forward Gomis’ close-range half-volley being repelled, left-back Yassir Al Shahrani then lashing wildly over with the net at his mercy.
This endeavour, however, was memorably rewarded in the 74th minute when Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco’s refined one-touch pass was converted by the on-rushing Al Dawsari, who’d been dismissed two years ago at the same ground.
Limited Urawa were, predictably, unable to pull off the three-goal swing required at that stage to extend East Asia’s eight-year grip on the title and epic celebrations from Hilal were guaranteed when leading marksman Gomis swept home from six yards in injury time for his 11th 2019 ACL strike.
THE LIVING LEGENDS
A win almost two decades in the making.
Hilal’s lack of continental supremacy since 2000’s Asian Club Championship joy, a period that stretched throughout the entire 17-year ACL era, was an overbearing burden on an obsessed outfit that continually proclaimed itself as the continent’s true giant.
Failures in the 2014 and 2017 deciders remained an open wound, while constant crowing from Saudi rivals Al Ittihad about their back-to-back 2004 and 2005 wins created immense rancour.
This is where the two-legged clash with bang-average Urawa gifted an open goal that they could not countenance spurning.
Substantial investment in the last 18 months had assembled a squad many in Europe envy.
Head coach Razvan Lucescu performed miracles last season with outsiders PAOK’s astounding unbeaten Super League Greece title tilt and he proved the perfect candidate to erase memories of a shoddy domestic end to 2018/19.
Enormous credit must be bestowed upon his bold choice to keep pushing after the interval, when many coaches would have retreated – often, with disastrous effect.
It was fitting, then, that the two faces of Hilal came together over these two legs.
Big buys Andre Carrillo and Gomis were joined on the scoresheets by youth product Al Dawsari. Poignant, too, that 38-year-old one-club man Mohammad Al Shalhoub was given the final moments in Saitama, many seasons after his teenage self excelled in the Millennium’s Asian win.
Hilal are back where they belong and a new group of legends have been forged. The only shock is that it’s taken this long.
REDS COME UP WAY SHORT
Urawa came in as two-time ACL champions, yet an element of ‘impostor syndrome’ may have preyed on their minds.
Demotion to J2 League for the first time since 1999 haunted them throughout a remarkable knockouts run that included unexpected victories over expected K League 1 winners Ulsan Hyundai, Chinese Super League holders Shanghai SIPG and Fabio Cannavaro’s star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande.
Japan centre-back Tomoaki Makino admitted to fortune from a final first leg from which they produced only two attempts and gained 30-per-cent possession.
The statistics made better reading on home soil at the interval on Sunday. Both clubs boasted four attempts and the hosts bossed the ball 58 per cent-42 per cent.
When Hilal unmercifully ramped up the tempo after the break, however, they did not have the ability or tactical acumen to resist. Not even close.
The visitors added a further 15 attempts to their two, while Urawa’s advantage in possession reduced to 55 per cent-45 per cent.
Urawa v Hilal would usually be a bona-fide heavyweight contest. This was a joint-record third ACL final for both and repeat of 2017’s showdown.
In reality, 2019’s meeting was destined to be a forlorn mismatch for teams on opposite ends of the developmental arch.
The final word must go to the format.
This Asian showdown came little more than 12 hours from an unbelievable late show in South America caused Flamengo to be awarded the Copa Libertadores at River Plate’s expense. That dramatic victory was gained in this year’s new one-off contest, in a merging with UEFA’s running.
There is something to be said, however, about the enduring value of the ACL’s two-legged running.
The opening half in Saitama was made utterly engaging because of the pendulum swing between Urawa getting level and changing the momentum, or Hilal delivering a devastating counter shot with an invaluable away goal. Similarly in Saudi, it forced Hilal to keep pushing on, despite their dominance, rather than protect a 1-0 advantage.
Slow burn over instant gratification.
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