- Al Hilal won the 2019 AFC Champions League
- It was the Saudis’ first continental title in the Champions League era
- Riyadh giants will now represent Asia at the FIFA Club World Cup
The 2019 AFC Champions League proved to be a story of redemption for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, who took the tournament by storm to clinch a place at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup.
The Riyadh giants have long been regarded as one of the continent’s powerhouses, having twice won the old Asian Club Championship. But those triumphs came in 1991 and 2000, and while they have remained competitive since the AFC Champions League’s inception in 2003, the title remained elusive. Twice they reached the final – in 2014 and 2017 - only to lose out to Western Sydney Wanderers and Urawa Reds respectively.
This year, however, was to prove very different. Al Hilal were convincing from the outset and, having started brightly, they progressed as group winners. They improved yet further under Romanian manager Razvan Lucescu, who took over midway through the season, and looked unstoppable during the knockout stage, sweeping past the likes of Al Ittihad and Al Sadd.
Those results set up a final rematch with Urawa, and the Saudis went on to avenge their 2017 loss in some style, winning 3-0 on aggregate to seal a maiden Champions League title and first-ever berth at the FIFA Club World Cup.
"Everybody in the club and every player has contributed to this fantastic performance," enthused Lucescu after Sunday’s victory. " I have to give special thanks to my players because they are the heroes. They are the most important people in the club."
Al Hilal's continental record
Asian Club Championship:
Winners: 1991, 2000
AFC Champions League:
Runners-up: 2014, 2017
Road to Qatar
Having failed to progress beyond the group stage last year, Al Hilal were a different side entirely this time around. Despite landing in a tough group that also featured inaugural winners Al Ain, Qatari champions Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, they dominated the section, advancing on the back of four wins and a draw.
They stepped up again in the knockout stage, edging out domestic rivals Al Ahli in the Round of 16 before overcoming two-time winners Al Ittihad in another all-Saudi encounter.
Al Hilal then went on to defeat Al Sadd 6-5 on aggregate in a titanic semi-final to set up a reunion with Urawa. A solitary-goal victory at home looked to have left the final delicately poised, but the Saudis followed it up with an impressive 2-0 triumph in Japan and emerged as deserved victors.
Topping the bill for Lucescu's title-winners is striker Bafetimbi Gomis, who emerged from the Champions League with two awards – for top scorer and Most Valuable Player (MVP). The 34-year-old former France and Lyon forward proved a mainstay for his side throughout, contributing 11 goals - five of which came during the knockout stage.
Also drawing attention was former Juventus forward Sebastian Giovinco, who sealed Al Hilal’s 3-1 victory against Al Ittihad before providing the assist for their opening goal in the 2-0 second-leg win over Urawa Reds. Saudi Arabia international Salem Al Dawsari is another key player and proved his worth to the cause with vital goals against Al Sadd and Urawa.