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Kuala Lumpur: Al Hilal have ridden an unbeaten run of 12 matches to reach this year’s AFC Champions League final with the Saudi giants reaching their second continental final since the tournament revamp in 2002-03.

Group Stage

Ramon Diaz’s Al Hilal qualified for the 2017 AFC Champions League after finishing as runners-up in the 2015-16 Saudi Professional League and were drawn in Group D alongside Persepolis of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Qatar’s Al Rayyan and Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates. 

The Saudi side needed a late equaliser from Brazilian Carlos Eduardo to secure a 1-1 draw with Persepolis in Muscat in their Group D opener, before Mohammad Al Shalhoub then struck an injury-time penalty to see off Al Rayyan 2-1 in Riyadh. 

Omar Khribin then notched his first goal of the campaign in a 2-2 draw against Al Wahda on Matchday Three.

Al Rayyan’s 3-1 win over Persepolis, meanwhile, meant it was the Qataris who occupied top spot in Group D at the midway stage, a point ahead of Al Hilal. 

Carlos Eduardo’s penalty saw off Al Wahda 1-0 in the reverse fixture in Riyadh as Al Hilal moved to the top of the standings after Persepolis and Al Rayyan ended goalless. 

 

A scoreless draw with Persepolis then confirmed their qualification for the Round of 16 for the ninth successive year after Al Rayyan succumbed to a surprise 5-1 defeat to bottom side Al Wahda. 

Diaz’s team wrapped up top spot in Group D as braces from Uruguayan Nicolas Milesi and Syrian Khribin ensured an enthralling 4-3 victory over Al Rayyan and booked a date with Iran’s Esteghlal Khouzestan in the last 16, while Persepolis finished as runners-up. 

Knockout Stage

Having suffered a surprise exit to Lokomotiv of Uzbekistan at the same stage in 2016, Al Hilal went into the first knockout round as firm favourites once more against a side who were making their debut appearance on the continent, Esteghlal Khouzestan. 

A 2-1 victory in the first leg for Al Hilal thanks to goals from Abdullah Al Dossary and Carlos Eduardo made it seven unbeaten on the continent for the Riyadh club, before a second 2-1, this time with goals from Khribin and Salem Al Dawsari, saw them through to the quarter-finals.

A mouthwatering quarter-final pitted the Saudi team against 2016 runners-up Al Ain as the two sides with the most AFC Champions League appearances went head to head. 

A scoreless draw in the first leg in Al Ain left the game firmly in the balance ahead of the return fixture in Riyadh. 

Three weeks later in the Saudi capital, Al Hilal delivered arguably their best display on the continent to date as they overran their Emirati opponents 4-0 with Carlos Eduardo completing a hat-trick.

 

In the semi-finals, it was to be Al Hilal versus Persepolis. The pair had twice faced off in Group D with nothing to separate the Saudi and Iranian giants as two draws ensued, but the semi-final would prove a different story. 

In red-hot form for club and country, Khribin opened the scoring with a header on the half hour in Abu Dhabi and a rare goal from Yasir Al Shahrani gave Al Hilal a two-goal lead going into the interval. 

Abdullah Otayf was dismissed for two yellow cards in quick succession soon after the restart, but Diaz’s team kept pushing forward and Khribin added two more for an emphatic 4-0 victory. 

Three weeks later, Al Hilal’s main task was to avoid complacency, particularly after Godwin Mensha put Persepolis in front in the 16th minute. 

But Khribin’s penalty on 30 minutes then calmed any nerves and, after Mensha had bagged his brace in the second half, Khribin notched his fifth goal in two games – and ninth of the tournament – as the 2-2 draw saw Al Hilal progress to a second AFC Champions League final after a 6-2 aggregate win. 

Photos: Lagardère Sports

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