Al Hilal ride luck to move one win away from a record fourth ACL crown

Moussa Marega opened the scoring for Al Hilal in Tuesday's AFC Champions League 2021 semifinal against Al Nassr to send them on their way to a 2-1 win. Yasser Bakhsh / Power Sport Images for The AFC

It was far from the vintage swashbuckling display Al Hilal are capable of showing, but perhaps it was never going to be given the nature of the clash -- a high-stakes AFC Champions League semifinal against local rivals Al Nassr.

The only thing that will matter to Al Hilal is that -- with a bit of luck -- they got the job done, as a 2-1 win at Mrsool Park on Tuesday evening sent them into November's final and kept alive their dream of a record fourth ACL title.

Having started the brighter of the two teams, Al Hilal broke the deadlock in the 17th minute with a touch of good fortune as Moussa Marega's low drive deflected off opposition captain Abdullah Madu and looped over Waleed Abdullah into goal.

Despite having just ten men after Ali Lajami was shown a straight red for a dangerous challenge before halftime, Al Nassr came out for the second half showing plenty of endeavour. They equalised five minutes after the restart when Anderson Talisca headed home from a corner.

Al Hilal netted what proved to be the winner with 19 minutes remaining when Salem Al-Dawsari danced his way into the area before his speculative effort took a fortuitous deflection -- once again off the luckless Madu -- and crept in at the far post with Abdullah looking on helplessly.

There was still time for Al Nassr to equalise and force extra-time only for Madu to spurn a golden opportunity deep in injury-time when he dragged an effort wide after being left unmarked inside the box.

As much as Al Hilal's dominant 3-0 win over Persepolis in the quarterfinals at the weekend highlighted their credibility as genuine contenders, the contrasting nature of Tuesday's win also bodes well for their prospects. On a night when Bafetimbi Gomis, Al Hilal's usually-dominant spearhead, was nullified, they still found a way to get the goals.

The ability to grind out results is a hallmark of a title-winning side. Al Hilal will likely find themselves in an arm wrestle of a contest on November 23rd rather than a free-flowing game -- regardless of whether it is against Ulsan Hyundai or Pohang Steelers. The two South Korean sides meet on Wednesday in the other last-four clash.

While midseason signing Matheus Pereira finds his feet in the No. 10 role, captain Salman Al-Faraj continues to be a creative influence in the middle of the park, pairing perfectly with the more-destructive presence that is Mohamed Kanno.

Ali Al-Bulaihi and Jang Hyun-soo again marshalled a sturdy back line despite having to take on a formidable attack from Abderrazak Hamdallah, Talisca and Jaloliddin Masharipov. Even when they were breached, keeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf was a reliable last line between the posts.

Al Hilal were last crowned champions of Asia in 2019 and equaled Pohang's record of three titles in the process.

Just two years on, they are one win away from taking the outright lead in the history books with a side that has proven they are equally capable of winning pretty as they are of winning ugly.