RIYADH: It is a question being asked all around Asia as the AFC Champions League gets into gear: Who can stop Al-Hilal? Who can stop the title holders, who picked up a record fourth continental crown last November, from making it five this time around?
While there is still plenty of time for a challenger to step forward, there is no doubt that the Saudi Arabian powerhouse are the ones to beat.
If evidence was needed of the Riyadh club’s ascendancy, then there is the fact that after three games of the western zone, the team is the only one with the maximum haul of nine points. Al-Hilal have already defeated Sharjah of the UAE, Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, and Istiklol of Tajikistan and are five points clear at the top of Group A and strolling through the first round.
While the foreign stars at the club generally grab the headlines, it is striking that Al-Hilal’s six goals in Group A so far have come from six different players with only one, a winner in the opening game from Brazil’s Michael, coming from an import.
Saleh Al-Shehri started the new campaign off with Abdullah Al-Hamdan, Mohamed Kanno, Nasser Al-Dawsari, and Salman Al-Faraj getting in on the act since.
The defense has been solid with just one goal conceded in 270 minutes of football. There is a real strength in depth at the club and they are not reliant on one player. Odion Ighalo has yet to score in the Champions League and the same is true of Moussa Marega and Matheus Pereira, two of the best talents in the competition. Even with injuries in the first game to Al-Shehri and Jang Hyun-soo in defense, and then Marega coming down with a bout of flu, the team have barely missed a beat.
Now they are approaching the realms of history-making. The most recent win over Istiklol, more comprehensive than the 1-0 scoreline suggested, was an 11th in succession. The run stretches back to the first game under coach Ramon Diaz who arrived in February. It is fair to say that the reaction to the Argentine’s return at the time was underwhelming, but results have been perfect. Not only is it the best streak of any new coach in the history of Saudi Arabian football, but it is also closing on club records.
Eric Gerets led Al-Hilal to a 12-match run during the 2009 to 2010 session when the well-travelled Belgian boss delivered the domestic title. The record belongs to Marcos Paqueta who oversaw a 13-game streak in the 2004 to 2005 season which, understandably, ended with the championship. Should Diaz and his men win the three remaining games in their group then both those runs will be surpassed.
There are only two downsides to Al-Hilal’s current hot streak. The first is that the knockout stages of the Champions League will not start until early next year as the tournament transitions to a September to May calendar meaning that, by the time the action resumes, players will have come and gone, not to mention momentum and form.
The second is that, unlike the previous two mammoth winning streaks, it is likely to end without a domestic title. At the moment, the Riyadh club are 11 points behind league leaders Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Pro League. There is still a little hope, as Al-Ittihad have played two games more than their challengers and the two teams are still to meet once more.
The problem for Al-Hilal is that the Jeddah giants have been in great form themselves, having dropped just five points from a possible 48 with the one defeat coming at the hands of Al-Hilal in March. That means there is probably too much for Al-Hilal left to do to make up the deficit. It also means that winning the current continental competition is more likely than domestic success this year.
That does not surprise former Al-Hilal goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi.
The ex-Omani goalkeeper, who had a spell with the Riyadh club in a career that saw him playing in the English Premier League with Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic, said: “Al-Hilal’s games in Asia are easier than the games they have in the league. There is no doubt that they will qualify at the top of the group as there is such a clear difference between the Saudi leagues and the others.”
Al-Habsi may be right as the rest of the pack have yet to impress.
Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail of Qatar have the firepower to cause anyone problems but a look around the other groups does not find that many potential challengers.
The expulsion of Persepolis and Esteghlal for falling foul of the Asian Football Confederation’s licensing requirements have not done much for Iran’s hopes.
The UAE representatives do not look to be of the classic variety. It may well be that Al-Hilal’s biggest rivals in the western zone – the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final – will come from close to home with local rivals Al-Shabab perhaps the second-most impressive performer so far in the group stage, with Al-Faisaly and Al-Taawoun also standing out. It backs up the point that Al-Habsi has been making.
Whatever happens, Al-Hilal are not only the defending continental champions of Asia but are currently the best team in the competition. Add that to a potential record-breaking streak of wins and these are heady days to be following the most successful club in the history of Saudi Arabia as well as Asia.