Saudi giants Al Hilal stayed on course for a second AFC Champions League title in three years with a tense 2-1 semi-final victory over cross-city rivals Al Nassr on Tuesday.
Mali striker Moussa Marega and Saudi international Salem al-Dawsari struck either side of the break in Riyadh to set up a title clash with either Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea who meet in the second-semi-final of the tournament on Wednesday.
Al Hilal won their third Asian title in 2019 but were dramatically kicked out of the tournament last year after several members of their squad tested positive for Covid-19.
But the team known locally as “Al Zaeem”, or “The Boss” seem to have successfully banished the memories of that fateful day from their minds with an impressive run this year as they moved within striking distance of another international trophy.
Al Hilal and Al Nassr have clashed on numerous occasions domestically but the magnitude of a crucial continental clash was not lost on them as both teams made a cautious start at the King Saud University Stadium in the Saudi capital.
The first notable chance fell Al Hilal’s way but al-Dawasari failed to take advantage of the opportunity by firing wide from the edge of the box after receiving a pass from Matheus Pereira.
Al Hilal were not to be denied for long though as Marega scored his first goal of the tournament in the 17th minute.
Mohamed al-Burayk found BafetimbiGomis with a long pass and the 36-year-old Frenchman deftly steered the ball for Marega who made no mistake with a right-footed shot to the bottom left corner of the post.
Al Nassr raised their game a notch after that but were dealt a body blow when defender Ali Lajami was sent-off seconds before half-time for a foul on Marega.
Despite the setback Al Nassr managed to hold their own and found the equaliser five minutes after the break with Anderson Talisca heading home from close from a cross by AbdulfattahAsiri following a corner.
Sultan al-Ghanem and Talisca missed chances thereafter for Al Nassr and soon Al Hilal wrested control once again with al-Dawasri scoring his third goal of the knockouts, his chip taking a slight deflection off Abdulla Madu before finding the net.
Al Hilal survived several anxious moments after that with AbderrarazakHamdallah an Abdulla Madu missing chances in stoppage time.