Al-Hilal moved into the last eight of the AFC Champions League on Monday with a 2-0 win over Esteghlal of Iran in Dubai.
After a tight opening period, Bafetimbi Gomis opened the scoring seven minutes before the break. About 10 minutes after, Salem Al-Dossari found himself in acres of space and made no mistake with a low finish.
That was it in terms of goals but not in terms of the contest. Below are five things we learned from the first round of 16 tie in this year’s edition.
1. The win was harder than the scoreline suggests
Playing a proud Asian powerhouse such as Esteghlal in the knockout stages of Asia’s premier club competition is not supposed to be easy, and this was far from a stroll in the park.
Despite the attacking riches at his call, Al-Hilal boss Leonardo Jardim has yet to really get a fluid performance out of his stars so far this season. The first 38 minutes followed a similar pattern to recent league games. The three-time continental champions had plenty of possession against a well-drilled defense but struggled to open it up.
But then there was a moment for Matheus Pereira. It was not anything spectacular, but a lovely little pass from outside the area that took three defenders — though one slipped — out of the equation. There was still some work for Gomis to do, and his little chip over the goalkeeper was as delicate as it was accurate, but it hinted at how important Pereira is going to be this season.
That goal gave the Saudi champions a little more space in attack, top-class vision from Moussa Marega and a smart pass freed Al-Dossari to score the all-important second.
2. Esteghlal always posed a threat but could not get past Al-Mayouf
The Iranians were happy to sit back and let the opposition have the ball, but it did not mean they were toothless. Indeed, they had more chances than the victors and will leave wondering how they did not score.
In the first half Siavash Yazdani headed over from a good position, and then Abdullah Al-Mayouf made a great diving save from a shot on the turn from Amir Motahari. It was a warning shot that the Tehran giants were not in Dubai just to defend, but had what it took to score and win.
But when you have a goalkeeper such as Al-Mayouf in this form then you always have a chance. He saved his best save until the 71st minute. Al-Hilal were looking comfortable and were cruising to victory, but then there was a header from Arman Ramazani that was destined for the bottom corner.
The keeper had other ideas, and although he was moving in the wrong direction he somehow managed to get across and claw the ball away for a corner. At that moment victory seemed assured, even though there were more chances that came and went begging.
Yet Esteghlal, which fielded an all-Iranian team, just did not have the cutting edge that Al-Hilal had. If there had been a Gomis in their ranks, or a Moussa Marega or Pereira, then perhaps the outcome would have been different.
3. Al-Hilal can beat anyone in Asia
For a team that won the continental title in 2019 for a record-equalling third time, it is hardly surprising that Al-Hilal are one of the favorites. There is just so much quality in the team, especially going forward. Even when the Riyadh giants are not at their best, there are players such as Al-Dossari, Gomis, Marega, Pereira and Salman Al-Faraj who can just produce a moment of magic. The defense can still look vulnerable under pressure, but with such striking power at the other end it is a surprise when Al-Hilal do not score.
Another plus is that the Saudi league is just getting going as the Asian campaign approaches its climax. Those from Japan and Korea are approaching the end of hard domestic seasons and are starting to look a little tired. The problem for Al-Hilal may be the busy international breaks and the fact that they provide so many players for the Saudi national team. All in all, however, this is a good problem to have.
4. Al-Hilal need to keep an eye on domestic affairs
Although Al-Hilal were focused on Asia, new Saudi Pro League leaders Al-Ittihad ensured that the champions were not able to completely put domestic concerns out of their minds.
The Tigers, who dismissed coach Fabio Carille last month after defeat in the final of the Arab Club Championship and were criticized in some quarters, have been in great form since. A hard-fought 2-1 win at Al-Faisaly was followed by a 6-1 thrashing of Abha, a team that had looked fairly solid until this weekend. The arrival of Igor Coronado, the big-summer signing, has made a huge difference. He was not ready to play under Carille, but scored one and made one against Al-Faisaly, and scored one and made three on Saturday. If he can continue with this kind of impact, then the new league leaders may be at the summit for some time to come. Saturday’s game with Al-Nassr promises to be massive.
5. Nasser Al-Dossari does the job
With the injury to Abdullah Otayf and the suspension of Mohamed Kanoo in midfield, coach Jardim had to turn to young replacement Nasser Al-Dossari to come in and partner Al-Faraj.
The senior man, who has picked up an injury that may keep him out of the next round of league action, helped the 22-year-old through a difficult match. At times Al-Dossari struggled to cope with the Iranians, who put plenty of men in the middle, but he stuck to his task and grew throughout the game. By the end, he was looking more assured in possession and reading the game well.
It was a solid performance from someone who is very much a squad player, and it shows that the three-time champions have the strength in depth that is needed to compete on multiple fronts.