Al-Ahli coach Besnik Hasi has a poor record against Al-Hilal in Asia but a good record against Al-Hilal’s boss, Leonardo Jardim, in Europe.
The Kosovo-born manager will be hoping that Europe wins on Friday when Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal meet in a hugely significant Saudi Professional League clash in Jeddah.
In six previous meetings against Al-Hilal as coach of Al-Raed, Hasi never won, but the last time he met Jardim the outcome was positive. The two coaches crossed swords in the 2015-16 Europa League group stage. Hasi was in charge of Anderlecht, with Jardim leading AS Monaco, and both in Group J. The Belgian boss had the better of the two exchanges.
Although Monaco drew 1-1 in Brussels in the opening game, Anderlecht later traveled south to the shores of the Mediterranean and won 2-0. In the end, the Belgian giants finished second behind Tottenham Hotspur. Monaco were eliminated in third.
For both coaches, there is just as much as stake. The game is one of the biggest in the country’s calendar and could be a turning point, especially for Al-Ahli.
After failing to win any of the first seven league games of the season, it was widely expected that Hasi would be out of a job. Yet the board decided against pulling the trigger despite facing the unlikely, though increasingly plausible, prospect of a relegation battle. Two wins have followed to take the Jeddah giants out of the drop zone and safely into mid-table.
Victory over Al-Hilal would be huge. For one, it would take Al-Ahli possibly into the top six and on the fringes of the title race with two-thirds of the season still to play. Just to suggest the possibility of a title challenge after the anguish of six draws and one defeat from the first seven games would be a welcome change for fans, as well as testament to how competitive the Saudi Pro League is shaping up to be this season.
There is more, however. The twin wins of late came against Al-Tai and Ettifaq, teams that have struggles of their own. Defeating Al-Hilal would be a huge confidence boost and a sign that Al-Ahli have turned a corner.
If you can beat the defending champions — a team preparing for the final of the AFC Champions League final in November when they are aiming at a record fourth continental crown — then you can beat anyone.
For Al-Hilal, the meeting does not quite have the same ramifications. The team are fourth in the table but have games in hand, thanks to their Asian commitments. This is simply another chance to get points under their belt to ensure that they can focus on the Asian final in three weeks or so and not have to worry about falling too far behind at home.
After the latest win, a 3-2 victory over Al-Raed, Jardim spoke of the need to stay focused until the end, and also voiced satisfaction that his players have been fighting until the final whistle.
In three of the seven games this season, Al-Hilal needed a last-minute goal to claim the win. Bafetimbi Gomis’ 95th minute strike from close range was a huge relief for a defense that had just conceded two goals in quick succession as a comfortable 2-0 margin suddenly became 2-2.
Al-Hilal may be welcoming back talismanic forward Salem Al-Dossari and Andre Carrillo, but Gomis is likely to be up front alone once more as Moussa Marega is still recovering from an injury picked up in last week’s AFC Champions League semifinal win over Al-Nassr. Abdullah Otayf is still an injury absence in midfield.
While the champions have already demonstrated this season that they have the strength in depth to challenge and succeed on two fronts there will be some concern, especially when it comes to defense.
Center-back Ali Al-Bulaihi is fighting the flu. With South Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo also in danger of missing the game and left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani battling for fitness, there are opportunities for Al-Ahli.
In training, Hasi has been telling forward Omar Al-Somah, Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Alassane Ndao to get among the Hilal backline and try to harry them into mistakes.
Whether it works remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Al-Ahli will need to work together to pull off what would be a famous win. It could be a season-changer.