For most clubs, going without a win for three games is just a blip, but for Al-Hilal it is a full-blown crisis.
The reigning Saudi and Asian champions had already qualified for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League by the time they collected just one point from the last two games of their group, but there was still criticism. Then came the 1-0 loss at Al-Feiha last Tuesday that hugely damaged their title chances.
Ramon Diaz’s 12 straight wins upon his return to the club in February is already history.
With 15 minutes remaining at Damac on Saturday, it looked as if a fourth winless game was imminent. The Riyadh giants were 2-1 down and the championship was receding out of sight. Then came the comeback, the kind that shows why Al-Hilal are the most successful team in both domestic and continental football. Foreign stars Matheus Pereira, Moussa Marega and Odion Ighalo scored the goals that delivered a 4-2 win.
It was a fine result, and necessary. It keeps the title race just about alive. As things stand, Al-Ittihad are nine points clear, and will kick themselves for throwing away a two goal lead against Al-Fateh on Friday to draw 4-4.
Al-Hilal have a game in hand against relegation-threatened Al-Ettifaq on Wednesday. Win that and the gap is six points with just four games left. The meeting between the top two on Sunday could then be a classic.
There are still issues to sort before then, and the game with Al-Ettifaq is not a guaranteed three points. The Dammam club were in deep trouble when they hired Patrice Carteron to replace Vladan Milojevic as head coach in March. After the recent break, which was spent training in the UAE, the Frenchman helped engineer an impressive and crucial 4-0 win away to relegation rivals Al-Taawoun, which took Al-Ettifaq out of the drop zone.
“I want to thank the players and the technical staff for all the hard work that they put in during our camp in Abu Dhabi,” Carteron said. “There were many changes needed when I arrived and we had to work on our defending and organisation and they have responded to that. Now we have another big game against Al-Hilal.”
The Frenchman has been working on how to improve the team’s counter-attacking capabilities.
Much of the talk has understandably been focused on the fact that this game is Al-Hilal’s game in hand over Al-Ittihad, but it is also Al-Ettifaq’s game in hand over Al-Taawoun, who they leap-frogged with that away win. This will be no a walk in the park for the visitors in Dammam.
There are plenty of other worries for Ramon Diaz in the shape of fatigue, injuries and suspensions.
Al-Hilal’s commitments at the FIFA Club World Cup and Asian Champions League mean that they have 14 games in April and May, compared to Al-Ittihad’s six fixtures.
There are long-term injuries to defensive midfielder Abdulellah Al-Malki, who tore his cruciate ligament in February while playing for Saudi Arabia against Japan, and striker Saleh Al-Shehri. Neither will play again this season, and Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo is also out.
And then there is Mohamed Kanno. The all-action midfielder was suspended for four months last week as a punishment after he signed a contract to join Al-Nassr earlier this year before reneging to stay with Al-Hilal. The Saudi Arabia Football Federation took a dim view of this, and hit Kanno with the lengthy ban. His absence is a big blow, made worse by fellow midfielder Gustavo Cuellar picking up a knock in the win at Damac. Playmaker Pereira is suspended, while Salman Al-Faraj missed the Damac game with a cold. While he should return, it will be to a makeshift midfield.
Much depends on Abdullah Otayf. The long-term injury absentee came off the bench for his first appearance since August in the last fixture. He is set to start on Wednesday, and while this may not be ideal for Diaz, he lacks the options to find an alternative. At the moment, it is all about keeping Al-Ittihad in sight.