RIYADH: Al-Hilal defeated Foolad of Iran 1-0 on Thursday to move into the semifinal of the Asian Champions League to keep alive their hopes of a fifth title — and keep the flag flying for Saudi Arabia.
It was far from an easy game but a late, late goal from Moussa Marega was just enough.
With Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab losing 2-1 to Al-Duhail of Qatar — who now await the winners on Sunday on home soil — the pressure was on Al-Hilal against a team making their first appearance at this stage of the competition.
It was far from a classic performance, but the kind of result that Al-Hilal have ground out on numerous occasions over the years as they have become the most successful team in Asian Champions League history, with four titles.
Ramon Diaz, coach of the defending champions, started captain Salman Al-Faraj following his return from injury. The Argentine was rewarded with domination of possession but few clear chances.
The Iranians were dangerous going forward, despite the resignation earlier in the week of coach Javid Nekounam.
Al-Hilal’s one effort on target in the first half came after 13 minutes with a low shot from Luciano Vietto from just outside the penalty area that was comfortably saved by Austrian goalkeeper Christopher Knett.
Foolad had the better chances and they could have scored three times. First, an unmarked Hamid Bouhamdan headed over from close range, then Ehsan Pahlevan forced a good save from Abdullah Al-Mayouf, before Roberto Torres also went close.
The 18-time Saudi Arabian champions pushed and probed but rarely looked like scoring, and at the break Diaz had much to ponder.
He brought on Saud Abdulhamid and it almost paid immediate dividends as the substitute raced down the right and sent over a perfect low cross that Vietto just failed to convert.
After 64 minutes, Vietto curled a loose ball from the edge of the area toward the left of the Iranian net, but Knett was there to dive and push the ball away.
Foolad went close when Mohammad Hazbavi headed a corner against the crossbar and Aref Aghasi’s follow-up shot was blocked.
Time was running out when, with just three minutes remaining, Al-Hilal found the winner.
Substitute Saleh Al-Shehri found space in a central area and fed Marega who fired a shot back across the keeper and into the corner.
It was cruel on the Iranians who had chances to win but, as many sides have found in the past, Al-Hilal have a knack of winning when not at their best.
Foolad’s Sasan Ansari said after the match: “We deserved to win, played well, and not many teams have put Al-Hilal under pressure like us.
“We had chances and if we had taken them, we would have won the game.”
The Riyadh giants will know that they will have to be better against Al-Duhail on Sunday, but at this stage it is results, not performances, that matter.