Al Hilal, Pohang Steelers face off in ACL final gunning for record fourth crown

Having last won the AFC Champions League just two years ago, Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia will be gunning for a record fourth title in the 2021 final. Yasser Bakhsh / Power Sport Images for The AFC

History will be made when Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal and Pohang Steelers of South Korea face off in the final of the 2021 AFC Champions League season.

With both teams the joint-record champions of the competition with three titles apiece, the victors of Tuesday's decider at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh will write their names in the history books.

Despite their respective pedigrees in Asia's premier club competition, both head into the game in vastly differing states at present.

- Fourth Asian crown for underdogs Pohang could be their greatest yet

As Saudi Arabia's most-decorated team, Al Hilal entered this year's ACL as champions of the Saudi Professional League and look a real chance to claim a third consecutive title on the domestic front in the ongoing season.

Just over three months into the 2021-22 campaign, Al Hilal are unbeaten in their first nine matches. While they are currently fourth and four points behind surprise leaders Damac, they have three games in hand and should easily find themselves back at the summit should they claim maximum points from those ties.

On the other hand, Pohang have not been domestic champions since 2013 and only qualified for ACL 2021 as the K League 1's third-placed team from last term.

While challenging for the K League 1 title has long been a foregone conclusion, the 7th-placed Steelers are currently enduring the ignominy of playing the final five games of the campaign in the relegation round -- with the 12-team competition divided into two halves after 33 match days.

Road to the final

For all their woe on the domestic front, Pohang have exceeded all expectations all the continental stage in 2021 and could yet make it a season to remember -- although it certainly has been far from a straightforward campaign.

The South Koreans finished second in Group G and only advanced into the knockout round as one of the three best runners-up, where they then grinded out a 1-0 win over Cerezo Osaka.

But Pohang then delivered a real statement of intent in the quarterfinals with an impressive 3-0 triumph over Nagoya Grampus, and then kept their nerve in the last four to beat compatriots and 2020 winners Ulsan Hyundai on penalties following a 1-1 draw.

Likewise, Al Hilal only managed a second-place finish in Group A -- surprisingly sitting behind debutants Istiklol -- but picked up the pace thereafter.

A 2-0 win over Esteghlal in the last 16 set up a quarterfinal against another Iranian outfit in Persepolis, whom they had no problems in seeing off with a 3-0 triumph.

Similar to Pohang, Al Hilal then came up against their fellow countrymen Al Nassr in the semis but flexed their muscles to win the tie 2-1 and book their place in the final.

Key players

Bafetimbi Gomis (Al Hilal)

It is impossible to look past Bafetimbi Gomis as the man most crucial to Al Hilal's prospects, given he has already done it all before.

When Al Hilal were last crowned champions of Asia in 2019, the Frenchman won both the Top Scorer and Most Valuable Player awards following his 11-goal exploits.

Now 36 but seemingly still at the peak of his powers, Gomis should be confident in adding to the six goals he has already scored this campaign against a Pohang defence that do struggle against physically-imposing spearheads.

Sin Jin-ho (Pohang Steelers)

Given Al Hilal's inclination to dominate the possession stakes, the ability of Sin Jin-ho to win his fair share of battles in the engine room will go a long way in swinging the momentum in Pohang's favour.

Sin's reassuring presence in midfield has been pivotal behind the Steelers' success so far in the ACL this season, and he does boast the uncanny ability to unlock an opposition defence with an incisive through-pass.

Having lifted the trophy with Ulsan 12 months ago, the experience of the 33-year-old will also be crucial for a young Pohang outfit that is lacking in stellar names.

Who will win it?

In a desperate bid to salvage what has been an otherwise disappointing campaign, Pohang will be determined to land the title and complete what has already been a fairytale journey.

They will not be found wanting in endeavour but they are lacking in experience and genuine star quality.

With Gomis leading the way and ably supported by the likes of Salem Al-Dawsari, Salman Al-Faraj and Matheus Pereira, Al Hilal should have more than enough to become the ACL's first-ever four-time champions.