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For Al-Hilal, 2021 has been near perfect.
In May, the Riyadh giants beat title rivals Al-Shahab to claim the Saudi Pro League title for a record 17th time. Six months later, South Korea’s Pohang Steelers were beaten 2-0 in front of more than 50,000 elated fans to claim a second AFC Champions League title in three years and a record-breaking fourth continental crown.
Between May and November, Moussa Marega joined FC Porto and the much-requested Matheus Pereira arrived from West Bromwich Albion to reinforce an already strong squad. In short, the weather was fine in Riyadh.
Still, clouds have gathered on the horizon in recent weeks and this stellar year is likely to end in a trough.
Al-Hilal lost 3-2 to Al-Fateh at home on Friday and have taken just two points in the last four league games. If the conquering Blues fail to pull themselves together quickly, the national championship risks slipping away from them – and that means problems for coach Leonardo Jardim, no matter what happened earlier.
When Al-Hilal beat Pohang on November 23, some warned of the dangers of a domestic hangover from continental efforts, but no one expected a team that had gone 18 games unbeaten, with 13 of those wins, stumbles over such a stretch. There would still be work to be done at the national level given the games missed due to the Asian race, but it was almost seen as given that the talented squad would soon be back in the middle of the title race.
There were two draws with Abha and Al-Feiha. Al-Hilal looked a bit lackluster and short of ideas for the future, but that was okay as the season was not yet halfway through. But then came the losses to rivals Al-Nassr and now Al-Fateh, the club’s first successive league losses since 2016. Both were deserved.
If Al-Hilal doesn’t end 2021 on a winning note against Al-Faisaly on New Years Eve, then this downgrade will become a crisis in its own right. After the last loss, coach Jardim admitted his players struggled to deal with opposition physically and were slower on the second ball. He also highlighted individual mistakes, such as the missed opportunities by Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari.
These are comments fans may find a little worrying from the manager of Asia’s best team. The Portuguese coach, appointed in June, also reminded supporters that he was deprived of the suspended Pereira, midfielders Salman Al-Faraj and Mohamed Kanno, as well as the versatile Nasser Al-Dawsari.
Yet the in-depth strength available to the former Monaco boss is such that he was able to leave last season’s top scorer, Bafetimbi Gomis, on the bench, a player who would enter most of the starting XI in Asia.
Al-Fateh was also understaffed, with six players unavailable due to COVID-19 and two other injuries. In fact, it was so bad that the club demanded that the game be rescheduled, a request which was denied by league officials. Worrying for Jardim, the fact that his counterpart Yannick Ferrara managed his absences much better has been noted at length by critics.
Surprisingly, Al-Nassr’s bitter rivals, who have known coach after coach in a bid for success, have now overtaken Al-Hilal in the standings, in part due to a derby victory earlier this month. and Saturday’s victory over Al-Hazem. Meanwhile, leader Al-Ittihad is now eight points ahead of Al-Hilal and will soon be reinforced by the arrival next week of Abderrazzak Hamdallah, the league’s top scorer in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. . Despite Al-Hilal’s wealth of firepower, six teams found the target multiple times.
If Al-Hilal struggled to return to national concerns after a recent Asian success, other issues could arise. On February 6 there is the small affair of their opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup. Win that and there will be a huge clash against Chelsea three days later in a tournament the club will want to take seriously in front of a worldwide audience. Shortly thereafter, the AFC Champions League 2022 will begin.
There is still plenty of time this season but Al-Hilal cannot afford to let the gap widen and need to improve both in terms of performance and results. The club consider themselves the best team in Saudi Arabia to be the “bread and butter” of their brand. No one claims the title every year, but any coach will be hard pressed to survive if Al-Hilal fails to even challenge him. For the most successful team in Saudi Arabian and Asian history, storm clouds suddenly appeared in a completely blue sky.