RIYADH: It is no surprise that Al-Hilal are favorites to defeat Al-Fayha in Thursday night’s King’s Cup final.
It is a team with more than 60 titles and trophies to its name, taking on an opponent that has none. Yet the nine-time winners — only Al-Ahli with 13 have won more — will not have it all their own way at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.
This is the biggest game in the history of underdogs Al-Fayha, and it is going to be a right royal battle, one fitting of this tournament. Al-Hilal have had plenty of big games this season and have a few more to come but there is something special about Saudi Arabia’s premier cup competition.
If years and decades of history are against Al-Feiha then past weeks and months are not. After all, they have taken four points from Al-Hilal already this season, more than most. There was a hard-fought 0-0 draw in December in Riyadh and then, on May 3, a famous 1-0 victory for the Orange at home to delight their fans.
Such results have helped to take Vuk Rasovic’s men into a comfortable sixth place in the table which means that they can fully focus on the final. It has already been a great season for the club, but it could get a great deal better.
The Serbian boss, who led Al-Faisaly to the 2018 final where they lost to Al-Ittihad, is ready.
Rasovic said: “We know our opponents well and we know that they are the best team in Asia. We also know that we deserve to be here, and we will be ready both physically and technically. I can say however that while we know that we have to be at our best defensively against Al-Hilal, we will be playing to win.”
The odds may be against Al-Fayha, but they have in their line-up Aleksandar Trajkovski, the attacker who caused a sensation in March when he scored the goal for North Macedonia that ended the hopes of Italy, European champions, of appearing at the 2022 World Cup. Few know better that anything can happen on the pitch. His exploits were well-noted in Europe as is the fact that the team have a Serbian coach and a Serbian goalkeeper in Vladimir Stojkovic. The former Red Star Belgrade and Nottingham Forest No. 1 has had an excellent season between the posts and the club’s decision to sign the veteran star in 2021 has been vindicated.
“You can imagine I am sure that, a year ago, it was not easy to convince the administration to sign a 38-year-old goalkeeper, but I did it as I know him well, know his quality, and how he is very professional and works very hard in training,” added Rasovic, who took Partizan Belgrade to the 2013 Serbian league championship.
Just a few days before came another example of how Al-Fayha can mix it with the best as they defeated league leaders Al-Ittihad 1-0 in the semi-final. Both games showed that they can take their chances and can keep the best attackers in Saudi Arabia, probably the best attackers in Asia, at bay.
“Of course, it is not easy to play against those two teams but if you analyze what we have done this season, you can see that we are a stubborn opponent when we play against the big teams,” Rasovic said.
That is borne out by the fact that Al-Feiha have conceded just 22 goals in the league this season, fewer than any other team.
Such defensive strength means that it could be a frustrating night for the league champions. When the two teams met earlier this month, Al-Hilal were kept at bay while Sami Al-Khaibari volleyed home a corner after 33 minutes to score the only goal of the game. Al-Fayha believe that their opponents are vulnerable to crosses into the box.
With that in mind, at least opposite number Ramon Diaz will be delighted that central defender Ali Al-Bulaihi has had an extra few days to recover from injury following the postponement of the last round of league games at the weekend. That meant the huge top of the table Classico against Al-Ittihad will have to wait until Monday but did buy a tired team some time.
Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani should also be fit. There are still some absences but with attacking players such as Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega, and Matheus Pereira fit and raring to go, Al-Hilal should have the firepower to test the miserly opposition defense to win another major trophy.
“I am very happy for the rest we got before playing this final,” Diaz said, adding that there were no such things as weak teams when it comes to a final. “The game will be decided by what happens on the pitch and not with expectations.”
The Argentine boss was understandably keen to dismiss the league results between the two teams this season.
“We lacked focus in that meeting but now we want to win the cup for our fans. In the final you either win or you get nothing, and we have to be at our best and focus more and reduce mistakes made.”
In what is likely to be a tight game, the team that makes the fewest mistakes may just end up with their hands on the trophy. Al-Hilal have dozens of those but Al-Fayha are looking for a first King’s Cup.