Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly eye unlikely FIFA Club World Cup Final showdown

Special Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly eye unlikely FIFA Club World Cup Final showdown
Al-Hilal’s Mohammed Kanno, right, celebrates with teammate Hyunsoo Jang after scoring against Wydad AC at Prince Moulay Abdellah stadium in Rabat, Morocco, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo)
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Updated 06 February 2023

Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly eye unlikely FIFA Club World Cup Final showdown

Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly eye unlikely FIFA Club World Cup Final showdown
  • Saudi and Asian champions Al-Hilal take on Brazil’s Flamengo, Cairo giants Al-Ahly face mighty Real Madrid in semifinals
  • Al-Hilal and Flamengo met at the same stage in 2019, with the South Americans winning 3-1

It was less than three months ago when Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari scored spectacular goals to defeat Argentina and set the 2022 World Cup on fire.

There is now another massive South American test for the pair as Al-Hilal take on Brazilian giants Flamengo in the semifinals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Tangier on Tuesday. The prize of a final against mighty Real Madrid or Arab rivals Al-Ahly awaits.

The Saudi Arabian and Asian champions are still recovering from an epic showdown with local heroes Wydad AC on Saturday.

Not only did the Riyadh giants have to come back from a goal down against the African champions — and complete 120 minutes of a tough encounter — but they also had to deal with 50,000 intimidating fans.

Al-Hilal came through in the end thanks to a late equalizer from Mohamed Kanno and then a tense penalty shootout.

Al-Hilal and Flamengo met at the same stage in 2019, with the South Americans winning 3-1. Al-Hilal took the lead thanks to an Al-Dawsari goal after just 18 minutes. Flamengo equalized and then, with 12 minutes remaining, Bruno Henrique — not the player who now turns out for Al-Ittihad — put the Rio de Janeiro club ahead. A late own-goal from Ali Al-Bulaihi sealed Hilal’s fate.

Both Al-Bulaihi and Al-Dawsari should play this time too, with Jang Hyun-soo another survivor from that game.

Jang said: “Facing a Brazilian team such as Flamengo in the semifinals will be difficult.

“We previously faced them in the same tournament. We lost at that time but we always aim to win every game we play, and this is no different.

“We will give everything we have to reach the final and then to be champions.”

Absences make the task harder. Midfielder Kanno, sent off for two bookable offenses on Saturday, is out, while Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo is doubtful.

Given that a quartet of Saudi Arabian internationals — captain Salman Al-Faraj, Yasser Al-Shahrani, Mohammed Al-Breik and Abdulellah Al-Malki — did not even make the journey from Riyadh, then coach Ramon Diaz has a lot to think about.

With one South American triumph in the last 15 tournaments, Flamengo, led by former Al-Ahli coach Vitor Pereira, would love to take the trophy back home.

They are in decent form back in Brazil, they do not have the injury problems of their Saudi opponents, but have had a lengthy journey.

If Al-Hilal do manage to win, it would put them in a major final, and their fans in dreamland. It would be another major achievement for Arab football; it is hard to imagine what an Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly final would mean to the region.

But first the Egyptians have the matter of a semifinal against Real Madrid, arguably the biggest club in the world.

The Spaniards not only won the European title for a record-extending 14th time last year, but they are also the most successful team in this tournament, with four championships.

For Al-Hilal to beat Flamengo would be seen as a surprise, but Al-Ahly triumphing would be an even bigger shock.

But the Cairo giants are in good form. Ten wins and five draws from the first 15 games of the Egyptian Premier League season have steered them well clear at the top of the standings, and they have already progressed past Auckland City and Seattle Sounders in this tournament, by 3-0 and 1-0 respectively. 

Real Madrid, with stars such as Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, are hot favorites, although they trail rivals Barcelona in Spain by eight points following defeat at the weekend.

Al-Ahly’s Swiss coach Marcel Koller said: “It is a great achievement to set up a date with Real Madrid in the semifinals.

“We will prepare both theoretically and technically for the game and we know it will be a big challenge.”

The Red Giants have faced European champions once before, losing 2-0 to Bayern Munich in 2020 on their way to third place — the same position they finished last year after defeating Al-Hilal in the third and fourth-place play-off.

It is possible that these two giants of Arabian football will meet at the same stage again this weekend — but there is also still time to dream that it will be in the final.