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.