RIYADH: A breathtaking, history-making Nasser Al-Dawsari goal after just 16 seconds of the AFC Champions League final set Saudi side Al-Hilal on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory over Pohang Steelers on Tuesday, and a record fourth continental title.
The 22-year-old’s early breakthrough was record-breaking in another sense as it was the fastest goal ever scored in the Champions League final. It was a stunning strike, worthy in itself of winning any championship anywhere in the world. Moussa Marega doubled the lead in the second half and Pohang, who were second-best for much of the game, never really looked likely to come back from that.
The Koreans were up against it from the start. The roar of the 50,000-plus Saudi fans that greeted the kick-off at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh had not even died down before left-back Al-Dawsari, who made his national team debut this year, gave the Blues the lead. He picked up a loose ball just inside the Korean half, moved forward and unleashed a fierce shot from about 30 meters that flew into the top corner.
Goalkeeper Lee Jun might have been caught by surprise by the timing, power and the pace of the shot so early in the game but even if it had come in the last minute and not the first, it is likely he could have done little about it — it was simply unstoppable. The sea of blue around the arena erupted and Pohang were left stunned as their opponents celebrated with almost as much disbelief as delight.
With three continental titles of their own to their name, however, the Koreans had the experience to know that there were still more than 89 minutes left to play and a lot could happen in that time. There was a reminder of this just 10 minutes later, as the Steelers silenced the din in Riyadh for the first time.
Sin Jin-ho won the Champions League with Ulsan Hyundai last December, and the attacking midfielder must have thought he had got on the score sheet this time around when his half-volley from the edge of the area dipped over diving keeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the ball bounced back off the underside of the bar. Lim Sang-hyub was well positioned to fire home the rebound but his shot bounced back off of Al-Mayouf’s legs. It was as close as the Koreans would come all night.
The game then started to settle into something approaching a more traditional final. The visitors were wary of conceding a second goal that would make an already tricky task doubly difficult and did not threaten enough. In fact, the game started to get a little scrappy, with some heavy challenges and misplaced passes. Al-Hilal, with playmaker Matheus Pereira getting more and more into the game, looked the more dangerous going forward but in the last 30 minutes of the first half neither goalkeeper had much to do until, right at the end, Al-Mayouf was grateful to see a close-range header from Gwon Wan-kyu fly straight into his hands.
Pohang made a double substitution at the start of the second half, a sign of their more adventurous intent, but it was Al-Hilal who created the first real chance after the break. Pereira found Bafetimbi Gomis in the area, only for the striker’s shot to be blocked by Alex Grant. Soon after, Pereira’s free-kick flew just over the top corner of the Pohang goal.
The Koreans, with seven losses in their last nine league games, were struggling to get a foothold in the game but while facing just a one goal deficit they were never out of it, and a mix-up in the Al-Hilal defense just before the hour mark allowed substitute Go Young-joon to get in a shot from the edge of the area that went wide.
Then, with 63 minutes on the clock, Gomis slipped the ball through to Marega in the right side of the area and the former FC Porto striker found the opposite corner with a low shot. Given that Pohang had not done enough in attack, that seemed to be that.
Mistakes can still change games, however, and that almost happened soon after. Al-Mayouf came out and missed a looping cross and the ball fell invitingly for Jeon Min-gwang at close range, but Muteb Al-Mufarrij was able to react quickly and clear the danger.
Pohang started to push forward but not only did this seem to be a case of too little, too late, it opened up more opportunities for Al-Hilal and 3-0 seemed more likely than 2-1. With 10 minutes remaining, the busy Gomis had a chance to increase the lead but shot just wide from inside the area.
That was the last significant chance of the game but Al-Hilal’s fans did not care as by this time they were starting to celebrate their team becoming the first to be crowned champions of Asia four times.
On the night, few could argue that they did not deserve this second triumph in three seasons.