Al Hilal began the defence of their Asian Champions League crown with a comfortable 2-0 victory against debutants Shahr Khodra on Monday night in Dubai.
The Saudi Arabian giants, who in November captured the title to conclude a 19-year wait for the trophy, were by far the superior side at the Zabeel Stadium, but took some time to break down their Iranian opponents.
Dominant domestically – Hilal currently top the Saudi Pro League – the defending champions took the lead, finally, through Andre Carillo’s heavily deflected shot moments before half-time.
The Riyadh side then added to their advantage in the second half, through star forward Bafetimbi Gomis's predatory strike. Attempting to become the first club in 15 years to win the competition in successive seasons, Hilal return to Dubai next week for their second Group B assignment, when they face Arabian Gulf League leaders Shabab Al Ahli Dubai at the Rashid Stadium on Monday.
"The match wasn’t easy; we made the match easy,” said Razvan Lucescu, the Hilal manager. “We won because the players had the correct approach with the correct mentality. It was almost the perfect game. My only small disappointment, I could say, is the difference in goals is not bigger.
“In football, it’s very important to tire out your opponents, to create opportunities that give you confidence and make the opponents feel under a big pressure. We didn’t score earlier but at the same time we created a number of good possibilities and clear opportunities.
"And finally it was a matter of moments that will come. This is part of football. But the players deserved to win the game. They deserved to score more.”
Three-time Asian champions, Hilal should have gone into the interval with a much-healthier advantage. Lucescu's men had penned in Shahr from the onset, with Sebastian Giovinco’s half-volley screeching inches over the crossbar and Gomis seeing his scrambled effort hacked off the line soon after.
The best chance of the opening 45 minutes, fell to Salem Al Dawsari, though, who scooped cleverly Giovinco’s pass over a Shahr defender before somehow contriving to roll wide his shot. He had only rival goalkeeper Mahdi Rahmati to beat.
Giovinco later stung Rahmati’s hands from range, before Carillo’s mishit cross from the right struck the Shahr upright.
However, within five minutes, Hilal had broken through. Carillo’s volley from the edge of the penalty area bounced off defender Ali Nemati, leaving Rahmati rooted to his spot as the ball looped over him and nestled in the goal.
In the second half, Hilal set about again camping inside the Shahr area. Not long after the hour, Gomis’ spectacular overhead kick skidded off the crossbar, yet last season’s top scorer would not be deterred. On 69 minutes, the Frenchman poked home Carillo’s pullback from the byline. He duly obliged by treating the 3,000-plus in attendance to his trademark "lion" celebration.
From there, Hilal closed out the match, Gomis mistiming a volley and Giovinco firing over. The champions were off and running, although sterner tests are no doubt to come.
“It’s obvious that this new competition that starts today is different,” Lucescu said. “We discussed this yesterday, because from now all the other teams have in front of them the team that has to be beaten.
“Before it was a little bit different. Hilal always had the dream to win the Champions League, it was a good team but at the same time without winning, without this huge motivation for our opponents.
“Now things are different, not only for the results, but for the extra motivation to be the first to beat the champions of Asia. But at this level there is always pressure. This group, this team are used to this pressure.
“Game after game, competition after competition, winning increases the confidence to win other games.”