ACL seemed destined for Western champions – but it may not be Al Hilal – ESPN

ACL seemed destined for Western champions – but it may not be Al Hilal – ESPN

Even before the current AFC Champions League campaign began last September, all the pre-tournament talk seemed to suggest inevitability.

Not only did it seem certain that this season’s champions would be from the West Asia zone (with the tournament split in two until the final), but it also seemed impossible that the winning team would come from any country other than the ‘Saudi Arabia.

This seems to be a fair consensus, especially given the influx of global talent that has suddenly made its way to the Saudi Pro League following significant spending by the competition’s powerhouses.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to travel to Saudi Arabia when he joined Al Nassr, but he quickly found himself in excellent company, with others like Neymar and Karim Benzema, but some of the superstars are now exercising their profession in a booming league. to be the best and most illustrious in Asian football.

As the ACL progressed, with the SPL representatives initially occupying three of the four quarter-final places in the West Asia zone, Al Hilal then looked favorites to continue and retain their continental crown by beating Al Ittihad while Al Nassr was eliminated on penalties. by Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.

Heading into Wednesday’s semi-final first leg, it looked unlikely that the result would be anything other than an Al Hilal triumph, even if it was the visiting team.

After all, they were on a world-record 34-game winning streak in all competitions over a seven-month period.

In the ACL alone, they remained the only team yet to taste defeat with a record 26 goals while having kept six clean sheets in ten outings.

Even with Neymar sidelined due to serious injury since October, Al Hilal still boasted plenty of stars like Rúben Neves, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and Kalidou Koulibaly, as well as Saudi stalwarts such as Salem Al-Dawsari, Ali Al-Bulaihi and Yasser Al-Shahrani.

But Al Ain had other ideas.

And it took them just 38 minutes to suggest that while the favorites to go all the way and win the ACL may still come from the West Asia zone, it is far from certain that it will actually be from Al Hilal.

With the half-time break still minutes away, Al Ain found themselves 3-0 ahead after an electric display to start Wednesday’s contest as they left the visitors reeling.

Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show with a first-half hat-trick, taking him to 11 goals for the campaign and top of the scoring charts.

Al Hilal offered more resistance in the 45 seconds and scored thanks to the efforts of Malcom and Al-Dawsari, although Al Ain also scored again thanks to a Kaku shot on goal to claim a 4- 2 in the first leg.

Even though the scoreboard would show that three of Al Ain’s goals were penalties – with only Rahimi’s first goal coming from open play – that shouldn’t take anything away from what turned out to be a performance that was undoubtedly more breathtaking than simply visual. contagious.

Even in the face of mighty Al Hilal, Al Ain coach Hernan Crespo stuck to his adventurous 4-4-2 formation and it worked wonders from the opening whistle as Rahimi and Kaku repeatedly found space inside – and behind – the opposition backline.

The central midfield duo of Yahia Nader and Park Yong-Woo were a driving force although Al Hilal enjoyed more possession, while Erik and Matías Palacios sparkled in the wider areas.

Fortunately for Al Hilal, all is not lost.

Al-Dawsari’s 78th-minute goal could prove more than just a consolation as it left his team with a two-goal deficit that not only arguably flattered them, but could very realistically be canceled in next Tuesday’s second leg – especially when it will be the second leg. their turn to take advantage of the home field advantage.

Al Hilal could yet make a comeback and keep their hopes of back-to-back ACL titles and a record fifth continental crown alive.

Yet, as was proven on Wednesday, this would be anything but a formality, as the potential champions hailing from the West Asia zone could easily be the brilliant Al Ain.


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