It is always difficult for a winning machine like Al-Hilal to accept that the Saudi Arabian league title is beyond them but now it surely is and it is time to think about what the rest of the season will look like.
And that means turning attention to cup competitions, and primarily the AFC Champions League final at the end of the month.
Against Al-Tai on April 10, only victory would have done yet at half-time, Ramon Diaz’s men were two goals down. Even after coming back to draw 2-2 in the second half, there was a feeling as they left the pitch that there would be a new champion this season. Al-Tai boss Mirel Radoi, who won the title twice as a player with Al-Hilal, surely spoke for many in the country after the game when he said that he thought his old club’s hopes this season were over.
Even the most optimistic of Al-Hilal fans would find it hard to disagree.
The latest setback means that, with seven games of the season remaining, the gap behind leaders Al-Ittihad has grown to 10. This is not like last year when the Riyadh giants were 16 points adrift of their Jeddah rivals in February and then went on a title-winning run.
This time, they are still in fourth and still dropping points. The draw with Al-Tai followed a chastening 3-0 defeat against neighbors Al-Shabab three days earlier. The Al-Hilal of a year ago would not have lost such a game against such a rival in such a manner and even if they had, they would have bounced back with a vengeance in the next fixture. That has not happened this time and the spirit and energy is just not quite the same.
Those five points dropped in the space of three days have surely ended any hopes of what would be a sensational triumph. The fact that Al-Hilal are playing so often is one reason why it would be a remarkable comeback, as they have a much tougher schedule than any of their rivals.
Friday’s clash with Al-Batin comes before April has even reached its halfway stage, but will be the fifth game of the month. The backlog of fixtures comes from success in the FIFA Club World Cup when they reached the final after defeating the champions of Africa and South America before losing a thrilling game to Real Madrid, and also reaching the final of the AFC Champions League.
When Hilal play Al-Ittihad in the semifinal of the King’s Cup on April 23, it will be the former’s seventh game of the month and the latter’s third. It is not a surprise that there is fatigue and there have been injuries. Captain Salman Al-Faraj has struggled with fitness for months and has made just six appearances. When fit the Saudi Arabian skipper makes the team tick. Salem Al-Dawsari has also missed recent games and any team in Asia would miss those two. Even those who stay fit have lost some of the zip from earlier in the season and understandably so.
The question now is what the rest of Al-Hilal’s season should now look like.
The title has surely gone. Even if they win all seven remaining games and, on current form, that is a big if, it is highly unlikely it will be enough. Al-Ittihad threw away the title last season but are showing few signs of doing the same this season. If they win just four of their final seven then it does not matter what the defending champions do.
Under coach Nuno Santo, the Tigers have become a clinical machine and have conceded just eight goals in 23 games. This is not just a team that is hard to beat either as there is serious firepower in attack with the likes of Abderrazak Hamdallah, Romarinho and others. In short, Al-Hilal have to go on an amazing run and Al-Ittihad have to drop a lot of points. That happened last season but Al-Hilal’s form is nowhere near as good and Al-Ittihad’s is nowhere near as unpredictable.
It all means that Al-Hilal should focus on the cup competitions starting with the King’s Cup semifinal against Al-Ittihad. It could be that Santo and his players will have an eye on winning what they see as a bigger prize, a first league title since 2009.
Then there is a bigger prize for Al-Hilal just a few days later with two games, home and away, against Urawa Reds in the AFC Champions League final. Both legs, including a grueling trip to Japan for the return match, are going to be exhausting both mentally and physically. In the past, the Asian final was in November when there was still plenty of time left in the domestic season but now the end comes when the Roshn Saudi League is approaching its climax and challenging for both is extremely difficult.
There are always demands on Al-Hilal to win every game they play and Al-Faraj has promised disgruntled fans that the players will fight until the end. There is no point however in the club giving everything in a vain attempt to catch Al-Ittihad. In the coming days, Asia has to become a priority in an attempt to extend that record number of wins from four to five. This is a tournament that Al-Hilal have a realistic chance of winning unlike the domestic league.