Al-Hilal’s latest Champions League defeat lays bare problems at Riyadh giants

Al-Hilal’s 2-1 defeat at Al-Rayyan on Monday left them bottom of Group D in the AFC Champions League. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018
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Al-Hilal’s latest Champions League defeat lays bare problems at Riyadh giants

LONDON: Al-Hilal’s 2-1 defeat at Al-Rayyan on Monday left them bottom of Group D in the AFC Champions League with just two points from four games. More than that, it left the Riyadh giants with huge questions to ask.
It is just three months since they reached the final of Asia’s premier club competition, unlucky in losing to Urawa Reds. Since the referee blew the final whistle in Japan, however, Al-Hilal have seemingly gone from good to bad to worse.
As if to illustrate the problems they face, Yasser Al-Qahtani’s last-minute consolation was only Al-Hilal’s second goal in the tournament so far.
One of the favorites for this year’s title are heading for an early exit and few of the club’s passionate fans could argue that it would be undeserved.
The performance in Doha on Monday was a microcosm of what has gone wrong over the past three months and laid bare the problems the side face.
Al-Hilal’s interim coach Juan Brown is 40, just three years older than the man he turned to against Al-Rayyan. Midfielder Mohammed Al-Shalhoub did not offer much of the expected composure and intelligence. The veteran slowed down the play too much and was wasteful in possession, a problem for the visitors all night.
That they have been forced to turn to a player whose best days are long gone would have been unthinkable three months ago. But it is the result of events beyond their control. Eduardo picked up a serious injury in November and has yet to return — that he remained the club’s joint-leading scorer in the league until earlier this month said a lot.
As if that loss was not enough, Al-Hilal then lost last year’s Asian Player of the Year, Omar Khribin. No team in Asia would not miss such a pair and it does not help that Nawaf Al-Abed, one of the best playmakers east of Europe, has also struggled with injuries.
As if to compound those unfortunate loses, the signings made earlier this year, such as Moroccan striker Achraf Bencharki and Ezequiel Cerutti of Argentina, have failed to shine. The lack of service has been an issue but Cerutti especially has yet to really click.
Ramon Diaz’s sacking as head coach in February after a 1-0 loss at Esteghlal has failed to have the desired effect. Caretaker boss Brown’s lack of experience and authority was always going to be a potential problem, but his appointment has not even produced the kind of short-term galvanizing effect associated with a change of coach. Al-Hilal have won one out of four under the Argentine and their lead at the top of the Saudi Premier League has been cut to a single point. They were already looking enviously at the impressive Al-Ahli in continental competition, now they are looking over their shoulders at the Jeddah club at home as well.
Brown could argue that this 2018 group is tougher than last year when Al-Hilal had six more points at this stage. But, while you could indeed find favor with that argument, the fact is he has bigger problems than simply trying to get out of the group — which while unlikely, is still possible.


‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

Updated 20 June 2018
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‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

  • A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half gave Uruguay a 1-0 win
  • Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance

ROSTOV-ON-DON: Good, but not good enough.
That was what Juan Antonio Pizzi stated as he declared himself pleased with his team’s performance in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay on Wednesday night.
But he lamented his side’s lack of firepower as they exited the World Cup after just two matches.
Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance in Rostov-on-Don after losing their opening game 5-0 to hosts Russia in Moscow last week.
The Argentine got his wish with a display that saw the Green Falcons fight throughout and edge possession against a Uruguay side ranked 14th in the world.
A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half after poor goalkeeping from Mohammed Al-Owais, however, was enough to hand the Green Falcons a 12th successive World Cup defeat.
The result means that even with a win against Egypt on Monday, the Green Falcons are no longer capable of progressing to the knock-out stages from Group A.
“We had a lot of ball possession and were able to impose our style of play and distribution,” said Pizzi. “We conceded a goal from a random play and didn’t have the weapons or tools to try to equalize. We kept the ball well and weren’t really troubled defensively, but lacked that ability to score.”
Indeed, for all their possession, Saudi Arabia have managed just three shots on target in 180 minutes of football. Against Russia, they failed to muster a single effort on target and the managed just three against Uruguay, two of which came in the final minutes when they knew they had to score or face elimination. None of the three shots came from a striker.
“This is our weakness. We have good ball possession, but no effectiveness. We lack the depth and skill required to win these games,” Pizzi added. “We have that deficiency and have looked for solutions, but we haven’t quite come up with one yet. But that is one of the reasons great forward are in high demand and are the elite players in world football.”
Pizzi had made four changes ahead of the match, dropping goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf in favor of Al-Owais and introducing Ali Al-Bulayhi at the heart of the defense alongside Osama Hawsawi. Further upfield, Hattan Bahberi came in for Yahya Al-Shehri and Fahad Al-Muwallad replaced Mohammed Al-Sahlawi. The changes, particularly the inclusion of Bahberi, seemed to give the side more impetus in midfield.
“The difference between the performance in the first game and this game is enormous,” Pizzi said. “The only way to compete at this level is to play at the level we did here. And even then it was not enough even to get a draw. Undoubtedly there were other factors aside from the pressure of playing in the opening game that made a difference, but it’s true that the difference was enormous.”
Many critics had predicted a deluge of goals from the likes of Suarez and Cavani, yet both were kept at bay. Save for a couple of half-chances early on, neither came close to scoring until the 23rd minute.
A corner from Carlos Sanchez sailed into the area and when Al-Owais came for it but failed to connect with his punch, Barcelona forward Suaréz was left with the simplest of tap-ins. He was so caught off-guard, he actually looked surprised as he reeled away in celebration.
“I believe you cannot be relaxed in any match,” Suarez said when asked by a Uruguayan journalist whether he had taken it easy against the Saudis.
“We wanted to win and to progress to the knock-out stage and this game simply showed how difficult it is. That’s the World Cup for you though and we are obviously delighted with how we have performed so far to progress.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez did not share his striker’s sentiments.
“Saudi Arabia wanted to excel and give a better account of themselves after losing to Russia,” he said.
“They did that very well and we have to respect them. But what surprised me the most is how we played. We underperformed.”