Western Sydney Wanderers became the first Australian side to be crowned Asian champions after a hard-fought goalless draw with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in Saturday’s AFC Champions League final second leg at the King Fahd International Stadium secured a 1-0 victory on aggregate for the continental debutants.
Tomi Juric’s strike after 64 minutes of last week’s first leg ultimately proved the difference between the sides after two-time Asian Club Championship winners Al Hilal again failed to convert a dominant performance into a breakthrough.
Western Sydney, though, were indebted to goalkeeper Ante Covic as the veteran custodian heroically kept his ninth cleansheet of the campaign with a number of key saves including a superb one-handed block to deny Al Hilal substitute Yasser Al Qahtani inside the final five minutes.
With Al Hilal needing to overturn a one-goal deficit from last week’s first leg, coach Laurentiu Reghecampf made one change as Salman Al Faraj replaced Abdulla Al Dossary at left-back, with Nawaf Al Abid coming into the side on the left wing.
Western Sydney coach Tony Popovic, meanwhile, made an almost identical change as Shannon Cole dropped back to fill Daniel Mullen’s berth at right-back, with Kwabena Appiah introduced into midfield for the visitors.
Roared on by a capacity crowd of over 65,000 who had packed the King Fahd International Stadium well over four hours before kick-off, Al Hilal made a bright start but, like in the first leg, the home side lacked a cutting edge in the final third.
That was helped by some poor decision making by the home side as well as often heroic defending from Western Sydney as centre-back Brendon Hamill bravely blocked from Thiago Neves on the edge of the penalty area after 30 minutes.
Covic’s goal remained under pressure as the half progressed, but apart from several nervous moments inside the area, Western Sydney’s one-goal advantage remained intact at the break as Al Hilal had strong penalty claims waved away in the last minute before half-time as Antony Golec’s lunging challenge on Al Abid went unpunished.
Covic was called into action at the start of the second half to gather Neves’ free-kick low at his near post, shortly before Appiah was replaced by Brazilian Vitor Saba.
And with the tie slowly slipping away from the home side, Al Hilal coach Reghecampf replaced holding midfielder Saud Kariri with striker Al Qahtani, with first leg hero Juric introduced for Brendon Santalab soon after for Western Sydney.
Al Qahtani almost made an instant impact, but the former AFC Player of the Year poked wide from inside the penalty area two minutes after the hour mark having expertly controlled Al Abid’s cross.
Covic then bravely blocked from Al Faraj at his near post, before the home side had another strong penalty appeal turned down with just over 20 minutes remaining as the Al Hilal full-back was sent tumbling to the ground after hurdling the Western Sydney goalkeeper close to the byline.
And despite Al Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al Sdairy again remaining largely untested, Western Sydney threatened to do what they had done in the first leg and snatch a goal against the run of play only for centre-back Digao to produce a last-ditch block to deny Labinot Haliti following good work from Saba.
Matthew Spiranovic was introduced in place of midfielder Iacopo La Rocca for Western Sydney with 13 minutes remaining, with Neves replaced by Mohammed Al Shalhoub for Al Hilal.
And Al Shalhoub almost made an instant impact only for Covic to expertly save low at his near post as the veteran winger attempted to guide his effort in from a tight angle.
But Covic saved the best until last as the Western Sydney goalkeeper produced a superb one-handed reflex save to deny Al Qahtani a seemingly certain goal from point blank range with five minutes remaining.