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Analysis: Dominant Al Hilal pick up where they left off

Dubai: Al Hilal proved themselves to be the best in Asia last year and judging by the holders’ display in their 2020 AFC Champions League opener against Iranian debutants Shahr Khodro on Monday, it looks like it will take something special to knock the Saudi giants off their pedestal. 

The 2-0 scoreline at Dubai’s Zabeel Stadium on Monday only tells half the story, for this was as convincing a victory as you are likely to see in this year’s competition, with Al Hilal creating chance after chance from start to finish.

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Fearsome foursome

When Andre Carrillo was added to Al Hilal’s AFC Champions League squad ahead of the 2019 knockout stages he completed a forward line that became the most feared in the competition. The Peruvian, Bafetimbi Gomis, Salem Al Dawsari and Sebastian Giovinco scored 13 of the side’s 16 goals from the last 16 onwards.

On Monday, they showed no sign of letting up. Three minutes in and Gomis’ cross was just inches over the advancing Al Dawsari, while in a dominant first half all four had efforts on goal with Carrillo’s deflected strike giving them a deserved lead on the stroke of half-time.

Last year’s 11-goal top scorer Gomis unsurprisingly got in on the act, tapping in from Carrillo’s assist with 20 minutes to play having previously seen an effort cleared off the line and an overhead kick go just over.

Between them, the quartet posted 18 of Al Hilal’s 23 attempts as Shahr Khodro’s goal was pounded from all angles. The only surprise was that they finished the game with just two goals as the Islamic Republic of Iran club were given what could prove their toughest assignment on their tournament bow.

The Giovinco effect

Of the four, it was arguably Giovinco who put in the finest display and, while Gomis may be the predator inside the penalty box, the Italian offers a considerable threat anywhere in and around the area.

Shortly after the 10-minute mark he fired narrowly over with his left foot and then as the half hour approached he forced experienced goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati into a fine save with an effort from distance with his left.

In between, the diminutive forward slipped a lovely ball through for Al Dawsari, whose ensuing creativity in dinking over the defender’s head and then side-footing goalwards deserved more as the ball trickled just wide.

Of Al Hilal’s 24 goals last year, just two came from outside the box, one of which was a Giovinco strike. On Monday, of his matchday high nine attempts (shown above), six were from outside the area and, while Gomis delivers the biggest threat close to goal, the 33-year-old provides a contrasting danger from further out.

Familiar faces

Of the 11 players that started both legs of the 2019 final against Urawa Red Diamonds, nine began the game against Shahr Khodro, while a 10th – Ali Al Bulayhi – came off the bench. The 11th, full-back Mohammed Al Burayk, is nursing an injury and was replaced by the only new signing: Madallah Al Olayan.

With the AFC Champions League’s limit on overseas players, talent such as Brazilian Carlos Eduardo and Colombian Gustavo Cuellar – regular starters in the Saudi Pro League – have been omitted from the squad as Razvan Lucescu opts for the tried and trusted on the Continent. And it’s a formula that works.

Reliable Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo again got the nod over Syrian striker Omar Khribin as the only non-Saudi Asian player, while the pairing of Salman Al Faraj and Abdullah Otayf (pass combination above) continue to hold fort in the centre of the park and allow the quartet in front of them and the full-backs to flourish.

Since Al Hilal beat Urawa in November, they have lost just twice: both in the FIFA Club World Cup, one of which was on penalties. They sit on top of their domestic league and are into the semi-finals of the King’s Cup.

While tougher tasks may lie ahead on the Continent, Lucescu boasts a formidable squad of players who appear to be getting better and better. They are the team everyone will want to beat; the question is whether anyone can.

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