Al Hilal in position to add further to Saudi Pro League’s glorious history in AFC Champions League
When Al Hilal step out onto Saitama Stadium 2002 this weekend they will be looking to match fellow Saudi Arabians Al Ittihad in becoming the only teams to successfully defend their AFC Champions League title in the modern era.
Since it was rebranded and reformatted in the early 2000s, Saudi Pro League clubs have enjoyed success in the competition. This proud history is worth repeating, ahead of Saturday’s Finals decider with the score poised at 1-1 against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds.
In 2004 and 2005 it was Al Ittihad who reigned supreme, with back-to-back titles to stamp their mark on Asia’s showpiece club competition.
Their victory in 2004 of South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma will forever be etched in the memories of Al Ittihad fans. Trailing 3-1 after the first leg in Jeddah, the Tigers faced an up-hill battle when they flew to Seongnam, a small satellite city near Seoul.
But inspired by Saudi Arabian legends like Mohammed Noor and Redha Tukar, Dragan Talajic’s side produced a stunning display to win the second leg 5-0 and seal an historic victory.
“After the first game, I think that only crazy people thought that we would win the game, let alone the trophy,” Talajic was quoted as saying after the game.
“I guess people must now say I am crazy because I really did think we could do something special here.”
Their double act in 2005 was less dramatic, but no less spectacular with a 4-2 win over Al Ain in the second leg in Jeddah securing a 5-3 aggregate victory, with Noor again on the scoresheet, underlining his status as one of Al Ittihad’s greatest ever players.
The Jeddah side couldn’t make it three-from-three when they made the 2009 final, played in neutral Tokyo against South Korea’s Pohang Steelers, falling 2-1 but Noor created history by scoring in his third AFC Champions League final.
Three years later it was Jeddah’s other club, Al Ahli, that made it through to the final but again it was a South Korean club that thwarted their efforts, with Ulsan Hyundai emerging 3-0 victors.
Al Hilal fans will want to forget 2014, when they came up against Australian side Western Sydney Wanderers in the final, with the Australian club, that was only former over 12 months earlier securing a dramatic 1-0 win despite a dominant display from Al Hilal in the second leg in Riyadh.
Making the final for the second time in four years in 2017 there was heartbreak again for Al Hilal as Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds escaped with a narrow 2-1 aggregate victory to continue the barren run for Saudi clubs in Asian competition.
In recent years, however, Al Hilal has started to right that wrong.
In 2019 they exacted revenge against Urawa with a powerful 3-0 victory.
Two years later, in 2021, Al Hilal continued their run of success, adding another title to their growing trophy cabinet. While Pohang broke Saudi hearts just over a decade earlier, they were no match for Al Hilal in front of a partisan crowd at King Fahd International Stadium with an early thunderbolt from Nasser Al Dawsari inside the opening 20 seconds setting the tone, before a second-half strike from Moussa Marega sealed the deal.
With this final of the 2022 AFC Champions League, the Riyadh giants are looking to make it an unprecedented three titles in four years to underline their recent domination of this competition.