DOHA: If there was any doubt that Al-Hilal are the best team in Asia, it was removed on Sunday as the Saudis roared into the final of the AFC Champions League with a 7-0 thrashing away at Qatar’s Al-Duhail in the semi-final.
Odion Ighalo bagged four goals as the defending champions blew away the Qatar league leaders in one of the most impressive results in the history of the tournament.
The four-time winners will take on Urawa Reds of Japan in the two-legged final in April and May, the third such meeting between the two teams in the space of just over five years.
In this form, the Blues, who earlier this month reached the final of the FIFA Club World Cup only to lose 5-3 to Real Madrid, will be very much the favorites.
The home fans were stunned, as was Al-Duhail coach Hernan Crespo who could only shake his head on the sidelines.
In a measure of how dominant this display was, VAR ruled out a Moussa Marega goal just before half-time in what was the tightest of decisions.
Al-Hilal merely shrugged their shoulders. They were already five goals clear in a game that was expected to have been nervy after the Qataris had defeated Al-Shabab 2-1 three days earlier.
Ighalo scored twice in the first 10 minutes as Ramon Diaz’s men took advantage of the high defensive line used by Crespo.
Mohamed Kanno made it happen inside the first 90 seconds, winning possession 30 meters out, lobbing the ball over the head of a desperate Duhail defender and then squaring the ball for Ighalo to head home from the six-yard line.
Then, after 10 minutes, Michael cut inside on the right and the Brazilian’s smart pass bypassed two defenders and fell into the path of Ighalo on the edge of the six-yard box. The former Manchester United striker skipped past the goalkeeper and squeezed the ball over the line.
It was a dream start but the 18-time Saudi champions did not sit back. Four minutes later Moussa Marega converted a low cross from the left wing by Salem Al-Dawsari to make it three.
At that point, the game was won. No team in Asia comes back from three goals down against the Saudi Arabian powerhouse. Al-Duhail, who defeated Al-Hilal’s Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab three days previously, were shell-shocked.
Just how much was demonstrated just before the half-hour. A goal kick from Al-Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf was allowed to bounce all the way through the Qatari defense and there was Marega again with time to control the ball, pick his spot and then shoot home from the edge of the area.
After that, the Malian turned provider. His beautiful backheel from inside the area gave Al-Dawsari the chance to curl into the net from just inside the area and the Saudi Arabian international, who scored a similarly spectacular goal against Argentina in the World Cup in November, did not need asking twice.
It was very nearly six before the break before VAR’s intervention but, regardless, this was one of the most stunning halves of football in Asian club football history.
The game was over as a contest. The only question remaining after the break was whether Al-Hilal would continue to score almost at will or whether Al-Duhail would bring some respectability to the scoreline.
The early stages of the second half suggested the former. If there was a tiny sliver of hope for the Qataris then it was extinguished in the 48th minute as Ighalo grabbed his hat-trick. Al-Dawsari slipped the ball through a wide-open backline and the Nigerian scooped it over the goalkeeper.
Just after the hour, Ighalo got his fourth. Abdullah Al-Hamdan slipped the ball through to Ighalo inside the area who then made no mistake. That made it seven.
The game, understandably, petered out a little. Al-Duhail were keen to avoid further humiliation while for Al-Hilal it was a case of job done, and spectacularly so. They now return home to focus on the domestic title race having done Saudi Arabian football proud.
It was a match that will enter Al-Hilal folklore and make the rest of Asia sit up and take notice. If they did not know before, they do now: Al-Hilal are not only the most successful team in the history of Asian club football but, at present, they are also the best. This was a stunning result.