Both Omar Khribin and Al-Hilal at a crossroads after a year of ups and downs

Having won the Asian Player of the Year title Omar Khribin's season was blighted by injury.
Updated 24 April 2018
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Both Omar Khribin and Al-Hilal at a crossroads after a year of ups and downs

  • Asian player of the year just back from injury could follow path walked by Mohamed Salah
  • Despite winning the title Al-Hilal season has been a mixture of good and so-so

DUBAI: In the end, Omar Khribin returned in triumph. But not before a season of ups and downs.
The Syrian forward was named Asia’s best player last November, but there was always the sense that he was not appreciated beyond the Saudi Professional League were he plays for newly crowned champions Al Hilal.
For club and player, this has been a defining season.
Before the league title was wrapped up with a comprehensive 4-1 win over Al-Fateh, thanks to Khribin’s hat-trick, there was a traumatic AFC Champions League campaign to endure. Having reached the final of the continent’s premier competition as recently as November, an exit from the 2018 edition in the group stage has been hard to stomach for supporters dreaming of a third title.
It has been a curious season for the champions, one that saddled contrasting AFC Champions League campaigns, seen a Saudi Arabia World Cup qualification and of course a managerial departure.
Al-Hilal dispensed of the service of Ramon Diaz on February 20, a day after a 1-0 loss to Esteghlal in the AFC Champions League, a seemingly harsh move considering his previous achievements in the competition not to mention a league title last year.
In truth, performances had dipped below what Al-Hilal’s supporters and, crucially, board expect. There was also an exit from the King’s Cup at the hands of Al-Qadisiyah; the loss to Esteghlal in their second Group D fixture (having drawn the first 1-1 at home to Al-Ain) was the final straw.
The incoming interim manager Juan Brown had to do without his side’s most potent weapon, and it is not stretching a point say that Khribin’s absence for three months through injury played a major role in Al-Hilal’s inconsistencies.
The 24-year-old had played a pivotal role in the club reaching the ultimately disappointing final against Urawa Red Diamonds last year, and his leadership and goals have been missed this time around.
In 2017, his 10 goals were a competition high, helping cement his reputation as one of Asia’s most feared strikers and, along with his contribution to Syria’s gallant stab at World Cup qualification, earned him the Asian Player of the Year award.
Suddenly, Khribin was the continent’s hottest property, less than a year after joining Al-Hilal from the UAE’s Al-Dhafra.
So where do Al Hilal and Khribin go from here?
Mohamed Salah’s astonishing first season at Liverpool has rocketed him into the bracket of world’s best players, and is now being held up as an example for other Middle Eastern players.
Khribin, at only 24, is one of the select few who can potentially carve out a career abroad should he choose to. While others like Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout have so far shunned interest from foreign clubs, could Khribin be the next Arab to make a big move to one of Europe’s elite leagues?
So far there has been no indication that the player wants a move, and Al-Hilal will certainly be doing all they can to keep hold of their prized possession as they look to maintain their domestic dominance and reassert their continental credentials in 2019.
First order of business would be to confirm a full time manager, and barring injuries the new man will still be working with the best squad in Saudi Arabia, and one of the strongest in Asia.
The Moroccan Achraf Bencharki has been a successful addition to the ranks of foreign players that include Ali Al-Habsi, the Argentine Ezequiel Cerutti and the Uruguayan Nicolas Milesi, as well as the injured and much-missed Brazilian Carlos Eduardo.
Captain and Hilal stalwart Yasser Al-Qahtani may have announced his retirement after last week’s title triumph, but the club remains home to some of the best local talent around, many of whom will represent their country at the World Cup in Russia.
No doubt more ingoing and outgoing transfers will be conducted during the summer.
The title win has eased the pain of the Champions League exit, and if Al-Hilal can hold on to their best players, above all Khribin, even better things can be expected next season.


UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

Updated 22 January 2019
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UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

  • UAE boss still under spotlight despite side reaching lasts-eight, where they will face Australia.
  • Hosts struggled to beat Kyrgyzstan in second-round after underwhelming group stage.

LONDON: Having guided your team to the last eight of the Asian Cup, it must seem strange to find yourself on the defensive. But that is the situation Alberto Zaccheroni, right, faced after leading the UAE to a second-round win over Kyrgyzstan.
The hosts were strongly fancied to see off the Central Asians in their knockout clash in Abu Dhabi, but were taken to extra time and the likely drama of penalties when Ahmed Khalil grabbed the winner in the 103rd minute.
The performance added to the impression that the Whites have made the quarterfinals through luck rather than ability. The team has looked far from impressive during the group stage and anything but possible winners overall.
They now face reigning champions Australia — and even the UAE boss admitted they will have their work cut out unless they improve. “I admit that against (Kyrgyzstan) we seemed to struggle with long ball and crosses, and we also had one or two chances to score and secure the game, but we didn’t convert those opportunities,” the Italian former coach of AC Milan and Juventus said.
“We will try to correct all the things that we believe were less positive between now and the quarterfinals. We now have three days to assess our squad and their injuries before we face a strong Australia team.”
Usually when a team reaches the later stages of a big tournament, players and coaches ignore the performance and pretend all is grand — generally with an emphatic declaration that they will win the title.
Zaccheroni’s post-match reaction was anything but bombastic, however. That is not only a pleasant change but also an appreciation that the UAE have been anything but impressive in their march — in fact, more a slow plod — to the last eight.
This is Kyrgyzstan’s first Asian Cup, and they are far from world-beaters. Playing at home with hopes of lighting the trophy on Feb. 1, the UAE should have easily beaten the Central Asian outfit.
Goals from Mirlan Murzaev and a dramatic late equalizer from substitute Tursunali Rustamov canceled out strikes by Khamis Esmaeel and Ali Mabkhouts. On top of that they hit the bar and the post. It took a controversial Khalil spot-kick to win the match, one that left the Central Asians with a bitter taste in the mouth.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksandr Krestinin said.
“We leave the tournament with a lot of regrets — we deserved more. It’s our first Asian Cup, but I’m sure it won’t be our last and we will come back stronger.”
There is a sense the UAE cannot play much worse than they have so far, and the hope will be that they can find a good performance in the quarterfinal against the Socceroos. If they are to shock the reigning champions, they will need Khalil to find his scoring boots again.
“Ahmed Khalil is a very good striker, he is one of the best in Asia,” Zaccheroni said of the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“When I took over the UAE team (at the end of 2017), he was injured and had not trained for a long time. He has also been injured many times recently and did not play often for his club.
“Nevertheless, he is a very good player, and I have to say that I rely on him a lot. He does so much for the team.”