AFC Champions League looked destined for West champions -- but it might not be Al Hilal

Al Hilal's world-record 34-match winning streak came to an end on Wednesday as they were beaten 4-2 by Al Ain in the first leg of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League semifinals. EPA/ALI HAIDER

Even before the current campaign of the AFC Champions League began last September, all the pre-tournament talk seemed to suggest an inevitability.

Not only did it look certain that this season's champions would hail from the West Asia Zone (with the tournament split into half up till the final), but it seemed there was no way the winning team would come from any nation other than Saudi Arabia.

It did appear a fair consensus, especially given the influx of global talent which suddenly made its way to the Saudi Pro League following some big-spending ways by the competition's powerhouses.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to make his way to Saudi Arabia when he joined Al Nassr but he soon found himself in stellar company, with others such as Neymar and Karim Benzema but a few of the superstars now plying their trade in a league which is gunning to be Asian football's best and most illustrious.

As the ACL progressed, with the SPL's representatives initially occupying three of the four quarterfinal berths in the West Asia Zone, Al Hilal then looked the favourites to go on and retain their continental crown as they saw off Al Ittihad while Al Nassr were eliminated on penalties by United Arab Emirates' Al Ain.

Heading into Wednesday's semifinal first leg, it seemed unlikely that the result would be anything other than an Al Hilal triumph even if they were the visiting team.

After all, they were on a world-record 34-match winning streak in all competition spanning seven months.

In the ACL alone, they remained the only team yet to taste defeat with a competition-high 26 goals while having kept six clean sheets in ten outings.

Even with Neymar sidelined with a serious injury since October, Al Hilal still boasted plenty of star power in the likes of Rúben Neves, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and Kalidou Koulibaly, as well as Saudi Arabia stalwarts such as Salem Al-Dawsari, Ali Al-Bulaihi and Yasser Al-Shahrani.

But Al Ain had other ideas.

And it took them just 38 minutes to suggest that, while the favourites to go all the way and win the ACL may still come from the West Asia Zone, it is far from a certainty that it will indeed be Al Hilal.

With the halftime break still several minutes away, Al Ain found themselves leading 3-0 following an electric display to start Wednesday's contest as they left the visitors shellshocked.

Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show with a first-half hat-trick, taking him to 11 goals for the campaign and the outright lead in the scoring charts.

Al Hilal would offer more resistance in the second 45 and scored through efforts from Malcom and Al-Dawsari, although Al Ain would also net again through a Kaku spot-kick to claim a 4-2 first-leg victory.

While the scoreboard would show that three of Al Ain's goals were penalties -- with only Rahimi's opener coming from open play -- it should take nothing away from what proved to be a performance that was arguably more jaw-dropping that it was simply eye-catching.

Even against the might of Al Hilal, Al Ain coach Hernan Crespo kept faith with his adventurous 4-4-2 formation and it worked wonders from the opening whistle as Rahimi and Kaku time and time again found space within -- and in behind -- the opposition backline.

The central midfield duo of Yahia Nader and Park Yong-Woo were a driving force even if Al Hilal enjoyed more possession, while Erik and Matías Palacios were scintillating in the wider areas.

Fortunately for Al Hilal, all is not lost.

Al-Dawsari's 78th-minute strike could prove more than a mere consolation as it left his team with a two-goal deficit that not only arguably flattered them, but could very realistically be overturned in next Tuesday's return encounter -- especially when it will be their turn to enjoy home advantage.

Al Hilal could yet produce a comeback and keep alive their hopes of back-to-back ACL titles, and a record-extending fifth continental crown.

Still, as was proved on Wednesday, that would be anything but a formality -- as the potential champions hailing from the West Asia Zone could easily be the brilliant Al Ain.