Kuala Lumpur: Two Saudi Arabian sides, two continental champions, two history makers. Al Ittihad and Al Hilal SFC are the only teams from the Kingdom to conquer the AFC Champions League.
Al Ittihad set a new standard for dominance, remaining the only team to win back-to-back AFC Champions League titles in 2004 and 2005, while Al Hilal’s persistence saw them overcome years of frustration to finally lift the trophy in 2019. the-AFC.com compares Saudi Arabia’s last two continental champions.
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Al Ittihad’s 2004 AFC Champions League success was achieved through a miraculous comeback in the second leg of the final, but not before iconic Croatian coach Tomislav Ivic was relieved of his duties following the 3-1 first-leg defeat in Jeddah. It was his assistant Dragan Talajic who took over, delivering the continental trophy in style on his managerial debut, which would also prove to be his only game in charge of Al Ittihad.
The following season, Al Ittihad recruited a legendary coach with a pedigree of continental success, Romanian Anghel Iordanescu had won the 2000 Asian Club Championship with Al Hilal, and his appointment proved inspired as he ensured Al Ittihad retained the trophy in 2005.
Meanwhile, Al Hilal also started their title winning campaign under a Croatian coach, Zoran Mamic, but he departed after four group stage matches. Brazilian manager Pericles Chamusca took over on interim basis for the remaining two matches, but it was a Romanian, Razvan Lucescu, who was appointed ahead of the knock-out stage and ultimately brought the coveted continental crown back to Saudi Arabia 14 years after his countryman had done so.
The Road to Glory
Al Ittihad 2004
Al Ittihad’s story unfolded smoothly in 2004; a relatively straightforward group stage in which they faced Islamic Republic of Iran’s Sepahan SC, Kuwait’s Al Arabi SC and Uzbekistan’s FC Neftchi Fergana. The Jeddah side topped the group with 13 points, with head-to-head helping them edge Sepahan into the knock-out stage.
Up next was a quarter-final against China PR’s Dalian Shide which was navigated successfully with a 1-1 draw in Dalian followed by a 1-0 win thanks to a Reda Tukar goal in Jeddah, paving the way for a fiery semi-final against Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Both matches were settled in the final minutes as Hamad Al Montashri sealed a 2-1 Al Ittihad win in the first leg and Osama Al Muwallad equalised at the death in Jeonju for Iordanescu’s men to step into the final with a 4-3 aggregate score.
The final was out of the ordinary; facing another Korean side in Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, Al Ittihad were stunned at home 3-1 in the first leg, leading to the axing of coach Ivic. Mission impossible was accomplished in what became known as the “suicidal second leg”. The scores were levelled before the break, then Mohammed Noor stepped up bagging a second-half brace and Manaf Abushgeer rounded off the scoring at 5-0 deep in added time to bring the trophy home from Seongnam against all odds.
Al Ittihad 2005
In 2005, the previous year’s winners received a bye into the quarter-finals. Their first act was a demolition of China PR’s Shandong Luneng. A 1-1 draw in Jinan was followed by a display of attacking talent and a 7-2 victory in Jeddah. Korea Republic’s Busan I’Park fared no better in the semi-final bowing 7-0 on aggregate to the might of Iordanescu’s men.
Al Ittihad were in the final again, and this time their opponents were Al Ain; the last club to win the competition before Al Ittihad. Sierra Leone legend Mohammed Kallon equalised for the Saudis late in the first leg, and got them off the mark within two minutes of the second leg as they brushed aside Al Ain 5-3 on aggregate to secure a second consecutive title.
Al Hilal 2019
With two finals lost in the past five years this came as a chance for redemption, as the Riyadh giants finally put to rest years of continental hurt. The group stage draw pitted them against Qatar’s Al Duhail, UAE’s Al Ain, and IR Iran’s Esteghlal; Al Hilal came out comfortably on top the group with 13 points, losing only once away to Esteghlal and drawing away to Al Duhail, while they won the other four games.
An all-Saudi Round-of-16 tie against Al Ahli Saudi FC ended in a narrow 4-3 aggregate win, with Bafetimbi Gomes’ hat-trick away from home proving key for Al Hilal to book a quarter-final date with Jeddah’s other club and two-time champions Al Ittihad.
A goalless draw in Jeddah was followed by a 3-1 win at home in Riyadh, with goals coming from Andre Carrillo, Salem Al Dawsari and Sebastian Giovinco to set up a semi-final tie against Qatar’s Al Sadd.
It was a semi-final to remember for neutrals - Gomis kicked the game off in Doha with an own goal before making amends moments before Al Sadd’s Abdelkarim Hassan was sent off. Al Hilal strolled through the rest of the game, coming out 4-1 winners.
In Riyadh, inside 20 minutes, Al Sadd looked like they were on course to make an incredible comeback as they went 3-1 up, before Gomis scored his side’s second five minutes later. The game went back and forth until the third minute of added time when Boalem Khoukhi scored to make it 4-2, his side needing just the one goal that never came as Al Hilal scraped through to their third final.
A repeat of the 2017 final against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds was next, and this time Al Hilal made no mistakes; a Carrillo tap-in secured a 1-0 win in Riyadh, and two week later in Saitama, they left it to the final 15 minutes before finally sealing their trophy with two late goals from Al Dawsari and Gomis.
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