Al-Hilal are not only the Asian champions but are also the best team in Asia. This is an important distinction as it has not always been the case at the FIFA Club World Cup over the years. And this is why there is no reason why the Saudi Arabians can’t defeat Chelsea on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi and give Asian football a huge boost.
So when star winger Salem Al-Dawsari said something that has been said a number of times over the years by Asian players ahead of meetings with European champions, it didn’t sound like the usual platitudes.
“We did not come here just to participate,” said the 29 year-old. “We want to win the title. There is nothing impossible and we know we have a tough game against the European champions but we have prepared well.”
There are a number of reasons why Al-Hilal, who won a record fourth Asian title in November by defeating Pohang Steelers of South Korea, can get past the English Premier League team and into the final.
As Al-Dawsari pointed out, this is not the team’s first appearance and the experience of 2019 when they finished fourth will stand them in good stead. In 2019, the Blues defeated African champions Esperance de Tunis to earn a semi-final against Flamengo, which ended 3-1 to the Brazilians.
This time feels a little different. Al-Hilal started against Al-Jazira on Sunday and it was a stunning result. This game, against the UAE champions on home soil, looked to be tricky yet the visitors thrashed the hosts 6-1 with six different goal-scorers. It was a top-class attacking performance even if Al-Jazira tired in the latter stages.
Moussa Marega was an influential force in the win and is ready for the Chelsea test.
“We have high-quality elements in our team that can make the difference,” said the Malian marksman who arrived in Riyadh from FC Porto in 2021. “We know that Chelsea will be a difficult game against the European champions and we will do all we can to give them a great game.”
That is the hope. Like Marega, Al-Hilal have foreign players who are accustomed to playing against teams such as Chelsea and they have plenty to prove. The scorer of the first goal against Al-Jazira was the first goal for the team for Odion Ighalo on his debut. The former Manchester United man was the league’s leading scorer at the end of last month when he made the move across the city from Al-Shabab. After spells in England where he did not exactly set the competition alight with the Red Devils or Watford, scoring against Chelsea would be hugely satisfying.
Matheus Pereira actually did score against Chelsea last season. The Brazilian was a standout in the Premier League despite playing for a relegated team, and when it became clear the playmaker was going to leave West Bromich Albion there were plenty of European suitors. There was some annoyance when he decided to join Al-Hilal and the usual jibes about it being all about the money. However, Pereira has yet to consistently replicate his Premier League form in the Saudi Professional League so perhaps facing Premier League opposition will see the 25-year-old return to his best.
And then there are the Saudi stars such as Al-Dawsari, Salman Al-Faraj, if fit, Yasser Al-Shahrani and Mohamed Kanno, among others — all internationals who should be at the World Cup in November and deserve to be playing against teams such as Chelsea on a more regular basis.
The talent and confidence is there, then, and playing in Abu Dhabi should be easier for the Riyadh Blues than the London Blues, though it could be that the 6-1 thrashing of Al-Jazira will wake Chelsea up. In 2012, many felt that the London team underestimated Corinthians and paid the price with defeat.
More recently, Chelsea’s league form has been patchy at best. Just three wins from the past 10 games has seen them drop to the edges of the title race in England behind Liverpool and leaders Manchester City. There is plenty of cup expertise, however. Saturday saw them reach the fifth round of the FA Cup with a hard-fought victory that went to extra-time, over third-tier Plymouth Argyle. They are already booked a Carabao Cup final against Liverpool later this month after a UEFA Champions League second-round tie with Lille of France.
Coach Thomas Tuchel has not made the trip to Abu Dhabi as the German has tested positive for COVID-19, though may attend the final should Chelsea make it. England international Mason Mount looks to be fit after picking up a knock against Plymouth but may be rested. Then there are stars such as Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Hakim Ziyech who must be raring to go after being controversially left out of Morocco’s African Cup of Nations squad.
Romelu Lukaku, who cost the club $131 million (£97 million), has been struggling for form and goals of late but the club may see this tournament as a great chance for the Belgian star to rediscover his mojo. Lukaku’s return to England has not been a happy one so far and his future is uncertain. If Jang and Ali Al-Bulaihi keep him quiet then frustration may show.
None of that is to say that Al-Hilal should win or will win against the European champions, but this time there is a genuine belief that they can. If so, the most successful team in the history of the world’s biggest continent will do its football scene a huge service.