London: Al-Hilal crashed out of the AFC Champions League after a 2-1 defeat to Al-Ain on Monday. It is a different story from last year when, four months ago, they reached the final. Here are five reasons the Riyadh giants stumbled at the first hurdle.
Injuries to key players
The run to last year’s final was built on impressive firepower, however, this time around most of the side’s attacking arsenal have been unavailable. Asian Player of the Year Omar Khribin has not kicked a ball in the competition this year. Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo was just as important, but has also missed all five games in the competition. Factor in the absence of Saudi internationals Nawaf Al-Abed, Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj and it not surprising the side struggled in attack this time around.
Firing of Ramon Diaz
With all those player changes, the sacking of Ramon Diaz as coach after the defeat against Esteghlal in matchday two was premature. The Argentine had a good record at the club and was surely better placed than his inexperienced assistant Juan Brown to handle the injuries and get the best out of a squad that lacked the depth some thought. Brown did not have the experience of Diaz. It showed and he struggled to get the side firing in the competition.
Possession but no penetration
In the Champions League, teams have tended to sit back and allow Al-Hilal the majority of possession, knowing that the quality was not there to translate that into goals. New attacking signings Achraf Bencharki and Ezequiel Cerutti managed just one goal between them. With the side’s backline increasingly brittle, there was also the knowledge that chances will come.
As well as injuries, they suffered other misfortune. On Monday, Al-Ain had three penalties and Omar Abdulrahman produced one of his best performances of the season, perhaps with a point to prove after being omitted from UAE national team duty. Add in Abdullah Al-Hafith’s deflected own goal during the 1-0 loss at Esteghlal, and it is clear lady luck was perhaps not on their side.
It cannot have helped that Al-Hilal are locked in a struggle for the Saudi League title with Al-Ahli. With just two games remaining, one point separates the arch-rivals. They meet in a potential title decider on Saturday. With a greater chance of domestic silverware than continental, it may be understandable that some of the players’ thoughts turned to the league and the battle against Al-Ahli.