Al-Hilal moved closer to Asian title number five after the defending champions booked a berth in the last eight of the Asian Champions League on Monday with a 3-1 win over Shabab Al-Ahli of the UAE.
It was a clinical performance from a team that just loves the tournament, and not many would bet against a third triumph in four years.
As soon as Odion Ighalo fired home the 17th-minute opener, the four-time winners looked to be on their way to the quarters, although the ride was bumpy at times until Jang Hyun-soo provided a second-half cushion.
That took the wind out of the opponents’ sails, even before Luciano Vietto added a third with 12 minutes remaining.
Former Al-Hilal striker Omar Khribin scored against his old club eight minutes later but it turned out to be a consolation.
Now to the quarters, which take place on Thursday. All knockout games are being held in Qatar, with Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab, who defeated Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf on Sunday, also making it through.
Earlier in the day, Al-Faisaly lost 1-0 to Foolad of Iran. Sasan Ansari scored the only goal of the game just after the hour to deny the second-tier team, and Saudi Arabia a third representative in the last eight.
Al-Hilal are still the team to beat. Their last game had been in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, which they lost 5-3 to Real Madrid, but their clash against Shabab Al-Ahli was very different.
Al-Ahli should have taken the lead early on but Yahya Al-Ghassani blasted over despite finding himself in space.
Within moments, Ighalo showed how it was done. Found by Moussa Marega in a central position, the Nigerian turned and then skipped past the challenge of Mohammed Marzooq to fire a low shot past Majed Naser.
Vietto’s cross only needed a touch and Mohamed Kanno went close, but at the other end, Al-Ghassani’s header at the back post was well saved by Abdullah Al-Mayouf.
Al-Hilal began the second half on top with Ighalo just failing to connect from close range, while a clever flick from Kanno was saved by Naser.
There was an ever better stop midway through the period at the other end. Khribin, the Syrian forward who is well known to Saudi Arabian fans, fired in a free-kick that looked to be heading into the left side of the net, only for Al-Mayouf to get across well and push the ball to safety.
It gave the UAE team a lift and Al-Hilal’s control looked in doubt, but then, like the champions they are, the lead was extended.
From a free-kick, Naser pushed a Jang header onto the bar, but then could do nothing as the South Korean defender headed into an empty net after 72 minutes.
Vietto steered home a delightful flick from Salem Al-Dawsari a few minutes later, and Khribin’s strike at the other end proved a mere consolation.
Also in the last eight are Al-Duhail, who overcame Al-Rayyan — also from Qatar — by 7-6 in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of action had ended 1-1.