Odion Ighalo hits four goals as Al Hilal show they mean business by routing Al Duhail to reach AFC Champions League final

Nigeria international Odion Ighalo bagged an impressive four goals on Sunday to inspire Al Hilal to a resounding 7-0 win over Al Duhail in the West Zone semifinal of AFC Champions League 2022. Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

It was slated as the dream AFC Champions League West Zone decider -- a semifinal between two heavily-fancied teams both looking to advance to meet East Zone finalists Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.

In one corner was defending champions Al Hilal, the tournament's record four-time winners, while in the other was Al Duhail, powerhouses of Qatar who have already gone further than they ever have before in Asia's premier club competition.

But while Al Hilal could certainly be forgiven for thinking they were in dreamland, Sunday's tie did not take long to become a nightmare for Al Duhail as they succumbed to a staggering 7-0 loss at Al Thumama Stadium that saw the Saudi Pro League giants remain on course to win a third title in four years.

Following a blistering start by Al Hilal, who found themselves 3-0 up inside the opening 14 minutes, the tie was all but over by halftime with Al Duhail trailing by five goals.

Former Manchester United man Odion Ighalo, who sat out the hard-fought quarterfinal win over Foolad, would finish the game with an impressive four goals, while Moussa Marega also grabbed a brace to go with another strike by Salem Al-Dawsari.

Considering the contest was billed in some quarters as a master-vs.-apprentice clash, given Al Duhail coach Hernan Crespo had previously plied his trade under Al Hilal counterpart Ramon Diaz at River Plate, it was perhaps fitting -- albeit unfortunate for the former -- that he would suffer such a humbling loss at the hands of his former boss.

For Al Duhail, who have flown the flag well for Qatar after a shock group-stage exit by compatriots Al Sadd for the second season running, an inquest should follow such a heavy defeat in what was expected to be a fairly evenly-contested encounter.

When the dust settles on this one solitary tie, however, they should still look back on the campaign able to appreciate the some positives.

Granted, losing by seven goals in a last-four encounter is far from acceptable but they still gave a decent account of themselves previously having passed some stern tests in the previous stages -- most notably when they saw off another Saudi Arabian side in Al Shabab in the quarterfinals.

Currently top of the Qatar Stars League, there is every chance Al Duhail will get another opportunity to test themselves against the continent's best teams when the 2023-24 edition of the tournament gets underway later this year in September.

Nonetheless, speaking of Asia's leading lights, it is hard to look past Al Hilal as favourites to go on and retain their crown -- even if there is still two months to go before they face off against Urawa in a two-legged final.

Both teams are familiar foes having contested both the 2017 and 2019 finals against one another yet, while there was an element of fortune and grittiness about the way the J1 League outfit grinded their way through to the decider, it was sheer dominance that has gotten Al Hilal this far.

In Ighalo, ex-Porto spearhead Marega and Saudi Arabia star Al-Dawsari, they boast quite the formidable triumvirate in attack -- and that is before factoring in the likes of inspirational captain Salman Al-Faraj, who is still on the comeback trail from an injury that saw him miss out on his nation's last two games at the FIFA World Cup, as well as LaLiga veteran Luciano Vietto, who can count Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia among his former clubs.

Admittedly, Al Hilal have not exactly been firing on all cylinders on the domestic front this season as they currently lie 11 points behind SPL leaders Al Nassr -- led in recent times by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo -- but with three games in hand.

Much can happen between now and when they take to the field for the ACL final, and there is every chance Urawa could raise their game and match the West Zone representatives in the finale.

Still, Al Hilal have proven to be the kings of Asian football in previous years for a reason.

And given the way they showed absolutely no mercy in Sunday's thrashing of Al Duhail, it would take a brave person to bet against them claiming a record-extending fifth continental crown.