Joy, but certainly not unbridled.
Al Hilal fully merited their 1-0 first-leg victory against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds when the best of the west hosted the east’s finest in the 2019 AFC Champions League final. The nagging fear, however, from a traumatised club who’ve been here before – against the same opposition, as recently as 2017 – is the sense of what was left unfulfilled at a cacophonous King Saud University Stadium.
For the Crescent to feel assured about, emphatically and belatedly, ending 19 years of continental anguish when the tie recommences at Saitama Stadium 2002 on November 24, they require more than Peru forward Andre Carrillo’s emphatic header upon the hour mark. Much more.
Confidence cannot be allowed to erode during an ill-timed international break. Hilal, still, remain in possession of a golden opportunity to become continental kings – by anyone’s reasoned reading.
They, naturally, are stung by an erroneous offside flag from the assistant referee erased Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari’s tap-in soon after the first, and with the, let’s not forget, J1 League relegation contenders wobbling. For all the bleating about the video-assistant referee, this was a textbook case of its enduring worth.
There was also uncapped Urawa defensive midfielder Takuya Aoki’s remarkable diligence to get back and block Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco’s first-half shot on the line.
Not even dominating possession 70/30 per cent, or racking up 20 more attempts than the negative visitors’ two, can fully assuage doubts for the decider.
Collectively, these what-if moments will play on Hilal minds for the next fortnight. They may induce an enervating effect on players attuned to misery after 2014’s inexplicable loss to Western Sydney Wanderers, plus frustrating defeat to Urawa two years ago.
Perspective is key at this juncture.
Bafetimbi Gomis and Co’s Hilal hold strong claim to being the best club side produced by the west since Qatar’s – and Raul’s – Al Sadd became the last nation from that section to lift the ACL, all the way back in 2011.
This is, distinctly, not the case for this Urawa in the east.
No-one in their current squad can equal the searing quality of 2017 match-winner Rafael Silva, now found at Chinese Super League-upstarts Wuhan Zall.
They came into that final as J1 League runners-up. At home, they currently sit only five points above the drop zone with a game extra played.
A dichotomy between their domestic and continental exploits, however, is apparent. Recent CSL winners Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou Evergrande, plus K League 1 leaders Ulsan Hyundai, have been downed in the knockouts.
Urawa, clearly, deserve respect. And Hilal head coach Razvan Lucescu will ensure they receive it from his troops.
But perhaps the most-emboldening aspect for the Saudis is the fact that recent history is now on their side.
Only one side in the ACL era, since its inaugural 2002/03 running, has rebounded from a first-leg deficit.
Every first-leg home winner has, also, gone on to lift the title. A 1-1 stalemate in 2017, critically, denied Hilal this status.
The past was an impediment to victory. Now, it should embolden them.
Forget the frustration from the near misses at the King Saud. Hilal, truly, have never been better placed to lift the ACL. Sport360
Joy, but certainly not unbridled.