FIFA Club World Cup may act as another springboard for Al Hilal in Roshn Saudi League
Al Hilal’s focus will soon shift back to domestic matters, after their landmark run to the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup final.
This month’s remarkable progress – the deepest by an Asian club in the global event – culminated with Saturday’s rollercoaster 5-3 defeat to Spain’s Real Madrid.
In Roshn Saudi League, fourth-placed Al Hilal currently trail the leading trio of Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Shabab by five points – albeit with varying games in hand.
But recent history shows that the Club World Cup can be a springboard to further glory. The previous edition sparked one of the greatest comebacks seen in the Saudi top flight.
Losing 4-0 to Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the third and fourth play-off at the 2021 Club World Cup, (actually played in February 2022) was a painful defeat.
Just 48 hours later, Al Hilal coach Leonardo Jardim was relieved of his duties. In came Ramon Diaz for a second spell in charge, but at the time Saudi Arabian title number 18 seemed like a distant dream as the Riyadh club were 16 points behind leaders Al Ittihad.
What happened over the next few weeks was nothing short of incredible.
Al Hilal showed why they are the most-successful team, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in Asia. They won 12 out of the next 13 league games.
The intention was there for all to see in the first fixture after their return from the United Arab Emirates with a stunning 5-0 win over Riyadh rivals Al Shabab.
Two goals each from Odion Ighalo, the former Manchester United striker who had recently left Shabab to move across the capital, and Moussa Marega set the scene. Soon after came an equally impressive 4-0 defeat of their other Riyadh rivals, Al Nassr.
Defeating two out of the top four so convincingly led fans of the storied club to start believing that one of the greatest comebacks in football was possible.
But it was the fourth game after the Club World Cup that really sent reverberations around the country – the Saudi Clasico against the leaders and Jeddah rivals. If Al Ittihad had won, the title race would have been as good as over then.
With the score at 1-1 midway through the second half, the contest was finely poised but then Ighalo popped up with another vital goal.
As fate would have it, the top two would meet again, this time in the fourth-last league game of the season. Al Ittihad had been dropping points, but were still six clear and victory would have meant a nine-point advantage with three games to go.
The Jeddah giants took the lead, thanks to a Romarinho penalty. Yet two goals from fellow Brazilian Michael, who impressed more and more as the season went on, made the difference.
Even with this second defeat, Al Ittihad were still in the driving seat with three games against teams in the bottom half of the table. Yet the Al Hilal loss was followed by a shock defeat to Al Tai and suddenly the top two were level.
Al Hilal won their remaining games which meant when Al Ittihad drew 0-0 in the final game against Al Batin, that was that.
It was a phenomenal achievement. Al Hilal had to battle a crowded calendar, injuries and a talented Al Ittihad team – but never gave up.
Diaz and his men know that after their latest Club World Cup exploits, there is still a lot to play for.