TANGIER: Al-Hilal are just 90 minutes from being crowned world champions, after a stunning 3-2 victory on Tuesday over Brazilian giants, and Copa Libertadores title holders, Flamengo in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in the Moroccan city of Tangier.
Al-Hilal, the most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia, already have dozens of trophies in their cabinet back home but have never come so close to a prize such as this.
Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr might have secured the services of high-profile signing Cristiano Ronaldo but Al-Hilal are now just one win away from a level of international glory unprecedented in the Kingdom. Coming just a few months after the national team’s victory over Argentina at the Qatar World Cup, these are heady times for Saudi football indeed.
Success in the final on Saturday would be the crowning achievement for Al-Hilal, though they are likely to find Real Madrid, arguably the biggest club on the planet, determined to block their path to glory.
Should the 14-time European champions lose their semi-final on Wednesday, Al-Hilal’s opposition will be Egyptian side Al-Ahly in what would be the ultimate dream match-up for fans in the Arab region.
Either way, it will be a huge occasion for Al-Hilal who, at the very least, have already improved upon two fourth-place finishes in their previous appearances in the tournament.
After coming through a grueling last-eight test against local favorites Wydad AC just three days previously, Ramon Diaz’s men delivered more than simply a battling performance on Tuesday, it was an intelligent and controlled one as well.
Just as Salem Al-Dawsari stunned Argentina with the winning goal for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup in November, so he stunned the Brazilian side with two first-half goals at the Ibn Batouta Stadium.
Both came from the spot, with a Pedro equalizer in between, and the second came after Gerson was sent off. Luciano Vietto sealed the victory after the break, despite a late consolation goal from Pedro.
The drama began in the fourth minute when the referee pointed to the spot after Matheuzinho brought down Vietto. Al-Dawsari had a penalty at the World Cup saved by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny — a moment that, had it gone differently, might have made the difference in the Green Falcons progressing to the second round — but this time he made no mistake, shooting low into the bottom corner past the diving Santos.
The Brazilians were rattled on a cold and windy night on Morocco’s northwestern coast and gave coach Vitor Pereira, who took the job just over a month ago, much to ponder.
His frown turned upside down after 20 minutes when the Rio club equalized in smart fashion. Matheuzinho slipped the ball to Pedro just inside the right-hand corner of the area and his first-time shot flew low into the opposite corner past Abdullah Al-Mayouf. Seconds later, the Brazilians almost scored a second when the goalkeeper came out and missed a left-sided cross.
But it was Al-Hilal who finished the first half asking questions of the opposition defense and they were rewarded with a second penalty, their third of the tournament, on the stroke of half-time. Vietto went down in the area and after a video review, Gerson, already booked, was shown a second yellow. Once again, Al-Dawsari stepped up and, once again, scored.
With a one-goal and one-man advantage, the Saudis were just 45 minutes from dreamland. They started the second half with composure, holding onto the ball and moving it around sharply and with growing confidence. The game began to open up as Flamengo were forced to attack and, as a result, leave bigger and bigger gaps at the back.
The South Americans were finally punished with 20 minutes remaining. The ball was fed to Vietto inside the area and he fired home into the roof of the net to spark wild celebrations among the visiting Saudi fans and on the Al-Hilal bench.
To their credit, Flamengo continued to push forward and there were nerves on display as Pedro bundled the ball home from close range in the first minute of stoppage time. But overall, this was a mature, hard-working and composed performance from the Asian champions.
Now, a team that came close to crashing out of the competition against Wydad on Saturday, eventually winning 5-3 on penalties after the game ended 1-1, have a chance to make magnificent history. Just getting to the final is a fine achievement but a return to Riyadh as world champions would never be forgotten.
After the national team’s World Cup victory over Argentina in November, and now Al-Hilal’s triumph over the South American champions, even Real Madrid will not be feared. Anything is possible for Saudi football at the moment, it seems.