Al Hilal looking unstoppable as AFC Champions League uncovers its final four

As the record four-time winners of the AFC Champions League, Al Hilal are always expected to be thereabouts come the business end in each edition of Asian football’s premier club competition.

But as the 2023-24 campaign moved past the quarterfinals this week, they are looking increasingly unstoppable in their quest for a fifth continental crown.

With a 2-0 victory over fellow Saudi Pro League giants Al Ittihad on Tuesday, Al Hilal completed a 4-0 aggregate win to book their place in the last four.

It was an unexpectedly convincing margin of victory given Al Ittihad are far from slouches themselves, boasting a lineup across both legs that featured famous names such as Fabinho and N’Golo Kanté — even if star striker Karim Benzema continues to be missing in action.

Not only did Al Hilal keep alive their hopes of reclaiming the ACL title they last won in 2021, they also set a new world record of 28 consecutive wins in all competition with the all-conquering streak stretching all the way back to last September.

Impressively, much of this run has been achieved without big-money signing Neymar, who has been sidelined since November with a serious knee injury while on international duty with Brazil.

In his absence, former Premier League man Aleksandar Mitrovic has led the way with 29 goals from 28 games in the league and continental competitions, while fellow key players such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Rúben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have also been influential.

Further fuelling expectations that this year’s title will be Al Hilal’s to lose is the fact that the team that loomed as their biggest challengers suffered a shock exit in the quarterfinals.

Despite having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mané to call upon, Al Nassr would fall to Al Ain on penalties following a 4-4 aggregate draw — following a woeful showing from the spot where the former would be the only one of four from his team to convert in a 3-1 shootout defeat.

Al Ain, champions of Asia in 2003, will be far from pushovers but there is a sense that they have already exceeded expectations in the current campaign considering this is the first time they have made it out of the group stage even since 2018.

It means that Al Hilal will be favourites come the semis — which will start on Apr. 16 — and should they march on to the decider, they are also likely to be the superior outfit regardless of whichever of the two remaining East Asia Zone contenders lie in wait.

Ulsan HD were the first from their side of the draw to book their place in the last four, prevailing over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 on aggregate in an all South-Korean affair to keep alive their hopes of a third ACL title — and first since 2020.

Ulsan will now meet Yokohama F. Marinos after the Japanese representatives saw off Shandong Taishan 3-1 on aggregate, with Anderson Lopes emerging as a pivotal figure with a double across both legs.

Marinos will also have no shortage of motivation to go all the way given that, for all their domestic success as seven-time J1 League champions, they are yet to taste continental glory even while watching six of their compatriots go all the way.

In recent times, the East Asia Zone have dominated the competition — boasting nine of the past 11 champions.

The only team from the West Asia Zone to emerge triumphant in that time? Al Hilal.

And with many expecting the West Asia Zone to dominate in the years to come, especially following the recent Saudi Pro League boom, it may just be Al Hilal to get the ball rolling this season — especially given how they look seemingly unstoppable in their march to glory.