Al-Hilal have plenty of history and have won everything there is to win in club football except for what is on offer on Saturday.
Playing Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup? It just does not get any bigger or better. To go back to Riyadh and then take on Al-Feiha on Wednesday as world champions would be quite something.
For all that there is a huge prize on offer. There is also nothing to lose for the Saudi Arabian champions. Just getting to the final is success. This is the first time in the tournament’s history that Al-Hilal have reached the final and this is the first Asian team to do so on foreign soil (Kashima Antlers in 2016 and Al-Ain two years later both made the final and both lost to Real Madrid, but were only there as representatives of the host nations). It means that, whatever happens, the reputation of Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabian football is now at an all-time high.
There are other reasons not to be overawed by the occasion and the opposition. Al-Hilal have already been in the lion’s den. There they were last Saturday taking on the African champions Wydad AC on their home soil of Morocco in front of 50,000 loud — very loud — and passionate fans. Just as it looked as if the Blues were heading home, they dug deep, stayed in the game and held their nerve in the penalty shootout.
The reward was an even tougher test, against the South American champions Flamengo in the semifinal. It ended 3-2 to Al-Hilal but there was more to it than that. They took the lead, had the early goal canceled out and then everything changed on the stroke of half-time as a penalty was given that Salem Al-Dawsari converted and the Brazilians were reduced to 10 men. The impressive Luciano Vietto added a third and while Pedro reduced the arrears, Al-Hilal were ultimately comfortable winners.
While the man advantage helped, Al-Hilal deserved the victory and it did not come from desperate back to the walls defending but was the result of a mature, composed and intelligent performance. Ultimately, the 18-time Saudi Arabia champions managed the game and the Brazilian powerhouse in an impressive fashion.
“Flamengo were surprised by our quality and by how prepared we were, mentally and strategically,” Al-Hilal coach Ramon Diaz said. “Flamengo didn’t expect that we would change our formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1, with Luciano Vietto as an attacking midfielder.
“Vietto ghosted behind their holding midfielders, who we identified were not good on challenges. And he was brilliant, earning both penalties and scoring a great goal for us.”
Real Madrid are obviously at a different level. The 14-time European champions have also won this competition a record four times. If Al-Hilal are a winning machine then Los Blancos are a phenomenon. They met Egyptian powerhouse and 10-time African champions Al-Ahly in the semifinal and ended up winning 4-1 on North African soil. When you consider that the Red Giants thrashed Al-Hilal 4-0 last year (though the Saudi Arabians were reduced to nine men before there were 30 minutes on the clock) then the task on Saturday looks daunting.
Yet on Wednesday, while the scoreline was convincing, there are some positives for Al-Hilal to take. Two of the Real Madrid goals came in the final minutes of the game and for the most part, Al-Ahly were more than competitive and had excellent chances to score. They were caught out by defensive mistakes.
At the other end, there was plenty of space to work with and with the striking talent that Al-Hilal have, there are goals to be had, especially if the forward line can get into gear. Odion Ighalo has yet to score and the same is true for Moussa Marega and Michael. If such talent can find their scoring boots then the four-time Asian champions will carry a serious goal threat especially when there are the likes of Al-Dawsari, Andre Carrillo and Vietto coming from a little deeper.
“I have studied Real Madrid’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Diaz. “The key for us is not to make mistakes.”
The Argentine boss wants his team to have confidence.
“In life, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. Whatever. It’s 11 against 11. We have a unique opportunity in our first world final,” he added.
There are absences but with Yasser Al-Shahrani, Mohammed Al-Breik, Salman Al-Faraj and Abdullelah Al-Malki not even making the trip from Riyadh, the team are learning to manage without them. Midfielder Mohamed Kanno will also be available, and rested, after missing the semifinal through suspension.
Real Madrid are not at full-strength either and while it would be fascinating to see how the likes of Jang Hyun-soo and Ali Al-Bulaihi get on against Karim Benzema, the French striker may not be fit and Eder Militao is also struggling.
“They haven’t completely recovered. Karim is doing quite well and there are more doubts about Militao. They will train on Friday and then we will see,” said coach Carlo Ancelotti. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard are also out.
“We respect Al-Hilal,” added the Italian. “They played well against Flamengo, have some very good players and we know that we have to be at our best.”
Al-Hilal beating Real Madrid would certainly be no bigger a shock than Saudi Arabia beating Argentina at the World Cup. The Riyadh giants have a chance of being world champions on Saturday evening. It will not be easy against the biggest club on the planet but that is why the potential glory is so great.