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AFC Champions League Final Preview: Al Hilal vs Pohang Steelers

Pohang Steelers team photo

The eagerly-anticipated final of the 2021 AFC Champions League will see Pohang Steelers make the daunting trip to Riyadh to take on Saudi giants Al Hilal. Pohang will aim to overcome the odds once again in the biggest match of Asia's elite club competition. Who will clinch a record-breaking fourth ACL title at the King Fahd International Stadium on Tuesday, November 23? Pohang Steelers Columnist Shibajee Das previews the final.

Recent Form

Al Hilal will be coming into the final on the back of a 2-0 home win over league leaders Damac. They have two wins and three draws in their last five league outings. The reigning Saudi champions are currently in fourth place in the league standings. They are currently five points off Damac with three matches in hand.

On the other hand, Pohang Steelers suffered a 2-1 loss to cellar dwellers Gwangju FC in their previous league matchup. Kang Sang-woo scored a late consolation for the home team after Lee Jun's own goal and Reis' fantastic effort had given Gwangju a two-goal lead. The Steelers finished the contest with nine men on the pitch after the dismissals of Alex Grant and Lee Jun. Kim Gi-dong's boys occupy the top spot in the Final B standings with a win and two defeats since the split.     

Team News

Al Hilal

Al Hilal have a few injury concerns ahead of the final. Left-back Nasser Al Dawsari sustained a knee injury while on national team duty for the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. He is currently undergoing his recovery process. Centre-back Ali Al-Bulaihi has a groin muscle injury and underwent a treatment session at the club's clinic on Friday. Another key man at the back Yasser Al-Shahrani is back in training after recently completing his rehab program.

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Former South Korean national team midfielder Jang Hyun-soo is also back in training after recovering from a recent injury. The 30-year-old is aiming to become only the second Korean to win two AFC Champions League titles with a non-Korean club after Kim Young-gwon, who had achieved the feat with Guangzhou Evergrande. Unlike the defence, manager Leonardo Jardim will have a whole host of wealth in attack to call upon for the final.

Pohang Steelers

Pohang will miss the services of Lee Seung-mo as he hasn't travelled with the squad to Riyadh. Lee is not allowed to leave the country as he has not completed his community service hours within the stipulated deadline. It will be a big blow to Kim Gi-dong's plans, with the make-shift forward having netted three goals in the current AFC Champions League campaign. Regular first-choice goalkeeper Kang Hyeon-mu is ruled out for the season, having undergone surgery on his ankle injury. Lee Jun is proving to be an able deputy so far. 

Another forward option who will miss out is youngster Kwon Gi-pyo, who is nursing a toe injury. The limited options in attack mean Kim Gi-dong is most likely to use Sin Jin-ho and Kang Sang-woo in more advanced positions. An exponent of the 4-2-3-1 system, manager Kim could use Lee Ho-jae as the lone forward.


The only previous meetings between these two clubs took place in the now-defunct Asian Super Cup, in the year 1997. Al Hilal won the first leg 1-0 at home, courtesy of Sami Al-Jaber's 32nd-minute effort. The second leg saw Pohang jump into an early lead after Seo Hyo-won's goal. However, Al-Jaber netted the equaliser in the second half, as the match finished 1-1. Therefore,  Al Hilal emerged victorious 2-1 on aggregate. 

This will be the first-ever meeting in the AFC Champions League between these historic clubs. However, the stakes couldn't be any higher. Al Hilal and Pohang Steelers have both been crowned the champions of Asia a joint-record three times.

Al Hilal first won the competition in the year 1991. They then went on to add two more titles in 2000 and most recently in 2019. In addition, they have been runners-up four times in the tournament. Pohang, on the other hand, have a 100% record when it comes to the final. The Steelers were crowned Kings of Asia in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998. They added another title since the turn of the century in the year 2009.

The Adversary

Since the arrival of Portuguese manager Leonardo Jardim in June this year, Al Hilal is yet to lose a single fixture. The new format introduced in the AFC Champions League this year meant that the group runners-up weren't guaranteed a place in the knockout stages this year. Al Hilal lost two matches in the group stage to finish in second place in Group A. Coincidentally, they also went through as the last best-placed group runners up similar to Pohang. 

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However, they are yet to taste defeat in the ongoing Saudi Professional League. Al Hilal are scheduled to face Al Raed in the Round of 16 of the King's Cup. On the continental front, this will be their fourth appearance in the AFC Champions League final in the last eight editions. Several members of the 2019 title-winning squad are still around and will be aiming to etch their name in the history books by winning a record fourth title.  

Who to Watch

Bafetimbi Gomis

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With 103 goals in 136 appearances in all competitions since arriving at Al Hilal in 2018, Bafetimbi Gomis is simply a goal machine. In just his second season at the club, Gomis guided them to the AFC Champions League title in 2019. The French striker was named the MVP and also became the first-ever European player to finish as the top-scorer in Asia's elite club competition.

Since his AFC Champions League debut in March 2019, Bafetimbi Gomis has scored more goals than any other player in the competition (17). This season Gomis has once again been in red-hot form. Six goals and an assist in nine appearances in the ACL, coupled with five more domestically goes on to show how lethal he can be. 

The 36-year-old has already underlined his ambitions by stating that his target is to recapture the trophy, and he is not satisfied by just reaching the final. Al Hilal have several world-class forwards in their ranks, but the Pohang defence will have to keep a close eye on the Frenchman as he still retains the same hunger as ever before. 

Kang Sang-woo

Generally, a left-back, who can also operate in more advanced positions, Kang Sang-woo’s versatility has been key to Pohang’s run in the AFC Champions League this season. He has netted two goals in the ACL this season, with both strikes coming against Johor Darul Ta’zim in the group stage. He has also managed to create nine chances for his teammates.

Kang has made eight assists in K League this season, six of them being from set-pieces. The 28-year-old’s ability to play in wide positions has benefitted Pohang domestically as well. The in-form utility player has scored four goals in the K League this season, with two in his last two matches.

Kang Sang-woo’s dynamism coupled with his willingness to adapt to the system will be vital to Pohang’s chances in the final. He will be hoping to make it the best season of his career, by lifting the coveted trophy come Tuesday.

Shibajee Das
K League United Columnist
Twitter - @Shibagoal

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