Al Hilal make history as Asia's first four-time champions, a year on from COVID heartbreak

Al Hilal were crowned Asian champions for a record fourth time after beating Pohang Steelers 2-0 in the AFC Champions League 2021 final. Victor Fraile / Power Sport Images for The AFC

Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia is Asian football's first-ever four-time club champions. In Tuesday's AFC Champions League final, contested by two teams that now previously jointly-held the status as the continent's most-successful clubs with three titles apiece, Al Hilal produced a dominant display to beat South Korea's Pohang Steelers 2-0.

Already heading into the tie as favourites, Al Hilal could not have dreamt of a better start when left-back Nasser Al-Dawsari fired them in front after just 16 seconds with a 30-yard thunderbolt, before Moussa Marega sealed the victory with a clinical finish shortly after the hour mark.

Few would argue that Leonardo Jardim's charges were not deserving champions given the way they raised their game in the business end of the campaign, even if they had to overcome a shaky start in the group stage.

Initially plagued by inconsistency, Al Hilal surprisingly finished second in their group behind tournament debutants Istiklol and only advanced to the Round of 16 by virtue of being one of the West Zone's three best-placed runners-up.

But with former Monaco manager Jardim replacing Rogerio Micale in June, the Saudi Professional League giants looked a different side in the second half of the campaign as they comfortably racked up four consecutive wins in the knockout round to be crowned champions of Asia for the second time in three years.

The triumph should perhaps come as no surprise given Al Hilal continue to boast the core that led them to their previous triumph from two years ago.

Captain Salman Al-Faraj still holds court in the middle of the park, Salem Al-Dawsari -- named the tournament's Most Valuable Player -- and Mohammed Al-Breik are ever-dependable on the wings, while 2019 top scorer and MVP Bafetimbi Gomis remains an formidable presence up forward.

This historic feat could easily have been achieved 12 months earlier were it not for a turn of unfortunate events.

In a 2020 campaign already severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Al Hilal were cruising to the knockout round after going unbeaten in their first five of six group-stage ties only to then be hit by an outbreak of coronavirus within the squad, which subsequently led to their disqualification as they were unable to name the required number of players in the match-day squad for their final game.

The motivation to put that disappointment to bed, plus the addition of seasoned stalwarts with European experience in ex-Porto star Marega and Brazilian Matheus Pereira -- who was featuring in the Premier League for West Brom as recently as May -- made for an unstoppable force.

Now that Al Hilal have indeed claimed a record fourth Asian crown, they can set their sights on another historic feat that they were also denied last year.

To follow in the footsteps of compatriots Al Ittihad and become only the second team in the history of Asia's premier club competition to win back-to-back titles when the 2022 campaign comes around.