Riyadh giants now hold record for most titles in the continent’s premier club competition and early next year head to the UAE for the FIFA Club World Cup
Al-Hilal are the best team in Asia and not just because they defeated Pohang Steelers 2-0 in the final of the AFC Champions League on Tuesday in Riyadh.
The Saudi side are now the only team to have won four Asian titles, but that triumph was more a tale of two Al-Dawsaris.
On the night, the headlines belonged to Nasser Al-Dawsari. But in the tournament as a whole, Salem Al-Dawsari has been imperious at times and that was reflected with the tournament MVP award.
That two local players grabbed the limelight in a team with perhaps the most talented foreign contingent in the entire competition should be a source of pride and satisfaction for Saudi fans and bosses.
It has been a remarkable year for Nasser Al-Dawsari, who earned a first international cap for a national team that are flying in qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
The 22-year-old has looked at home playing for the Green Falcons, but nevertheless has failed to make the kind of impact for the national team that he made for his club after just 16 seconds of the final — that would have been impossible.
There cannot be many in Saudi Arabia who are unaware of what happened in that first minute: The collection of the ball just inside the Pohang half followed by a 30-meter shot past a stunned Lee Jun in the top corner of the Korean goal. It was a goal worthy of winning any game, any final in the world.
Leonardo Jardim’s men were always clear favorites against a team that had lost seven of the last nine games in their domestic league, but that strike, coming from a player high on confidence, as good as sealed the victory.
Pohang boss Kim Ki-dong admitted after the match that falling behind so early left his team unable to carry out 50 percent of their game plan.
The Steelers’ strategy was to keep it tight for the first half, quieten the 50,000-plus home fans, frustrate Al-Hilal’s players, and then slowly start to push forward in the hope of getting the all-important first goal.
Al-Dawsari’s thunderbolt blasted a hole in the Pohang playbook, and visibly shocked the visiting players. Apart from a shot from Sin Jin-ho after 12 minutes — Kim was right when he said that it would have been an interesting contest had the strike gone in rather than hit the bar — the three-time Asian champions never really looked like scoring and ending Al-Hilal’s dream of number four.
It was a solid performance all round, with Bafetimbi Gomis impressing once more despite failing to get on the scoresheet and, instead, setting up the second for Moussa Marega.
The club’s strength in depth was demonstrated again as Muteb Al-Mufarij came in as center-back cover for the suspended/injured Ali Al-Bulaihi and made several crucial interceptions and blocks.
Before kick-off, if you had to put money on an Al-Dawsari deciding the game with a spectacular goal then it would have gone straight on Salem. The 30-year-old was busy in the final without grabbing the headlines, but without his contribution in the knockout stage Al-Hilal would not have reached the final. That was recognized when the silky winger received the tournament MVP award.
The Jeddah-born star won the individual prize for being involved in four goals in the three games leading up to the final. He scored in the second round against Esteghlal, did the same in the quarterfinal against Persepolis with a spectacular strike, and then netted in the semifinal with another fine shot that sealed an unforgettable win over Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr.
There are other stats. Salem completed more dribbles than any other player since 2013, and has recorded six goals and two assists in his last eight knockout stage appearances in the competition. He really is a player for the big stage. But now, too, is Nasser Al-Dawsari.
For Al-Hilal there are big stages to come, starting with a place in the FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE early next year that could feature a clash with European champions Chelsea.
That is in the future and there is a little time to enjoy the record-breaking triumph before the Riyadh club re-enter the Saudi Professional League title race next weekend.
Football never stops, but for Al-Hilal it is certainly a lot of fun at the moment — and no more so than for the two Al-Dawsaris.