Al-Hi­lal’s lat­est de­feat lays bare prob­lems at Riyadh gi­ants


LON­DON: Al-Hi­lal’s 2-1 de­feat at Al-Rayyan on Mon­day left them bot­tom of Group D in the AFC Cham­pi­ons League with just two points from four games. More than that, it left the Riyadh gi­ants with huge ques­tions to ask.

It is just three months since they reached the fi­nal of Asia’s premier club com­pe­ti­tion, un­lucky in los­ing to Urawa Reds. Since the ref­eree blew the fi­nal whis­tle in Japan, how­ever, Al-Hi­lal have seem­ingly gone from good to bad to worse.

As if to il­lus­trate the prob­lems they face, Yasser Al-Qah­tani’s last­minute con­so­la­tion was only Al-Hi­lal’s sec­ond goal in the tour­na­ment so far.

One of the fa­vorites for this year’s ti­tle are head­ing for an early exit and few of the club’s pas­sion­ate fans could ar­gue that it would be un­de­served.

The per­for­mance in Doha on Mon­day was a mi­cro­cosm of what has gone wrong over the past three months and laid bare the prob­lems the side face.

Al-Hi­lal’s in­terim coach Juan Brown is 40, just three years older than the man he turned to against Al-Rayyan. Mid­fielder Mo­hammed Al-Shal­houb did not of­fer much of the ex­pected com­po­sure and in­tel­li­gence. The vet­eran slowed down the play too much and was waste­ful in pos­ses­sion, a prob­lem for the vis­i­tors all night.

That they have been forced to turn to a player whose best days are long gone would have been un­think­able three months ago. But it is the re­sult of events be­yond their con­trol. Ed­uardo picked up a se­ri­ous in­jury in Novem­ber and has yet to re­turn — that he re­mained the club’s joint-lead­ing scorer in the league un­til ear­lier this month said a lot.

As if that loss was not enough, Al-Hi­lal then lost last year’s Asian Player of the Year, Omar Khribin. No team in Asia would not miss such a pair and it does not help that Nawaf Al-Abed, one of the best play­mak­ers east of Europe, has also strug­gled with in­juries.

As if to com­pound those un­for­tu­nate loses, the sign­ings made ear­lier this year, such as Moroc­can striker Achraf Ben­charki and Eze­quiel Cerutti of Ar­gentina, have failed to shine. The lack of ser­vice has been an is­sue but Cerutti es­pe­cially has yet to re­ally click.

Ra­mon Diaz’s sack­ing as head coach in Fe­bru­ary af­ter a 1-0 loss at Estegh­lal has failed to have the de­sired ef­fect. Care­taker boss Brown’s lack of ex­pe­ri­ence and au­thor­ity was al­ways go­ing to be a po­ten­tial prob­lem, but his ap­point­ment has not even pro­duced the kind of short­term gal­va­niz­ing ef­fect as­so­ci­ated with a change of coach. Al-Hi­lal have won one out of four un­der the Ar­gen­tine and their lead at the top of the Saudi Premier League has been cut to a sin­gle point. They were al­ready look­ing en­vi­ously at the im­pres­sive Al-Ahli in con­ti­nen­tal com­pe­ti­tion, now they are look­ing over their shoul­ders at the Jed­dah club at home as well.

Brown could ar­gue that this 2018 group is tougher than last year when Al-Hi­lal had six more points at this stage. But, while you could in­deed find fa­vor with that ar­gu­ment, the fact is he has big­ger prob­lems than sim­ply try­ing to get out of the group — which while un­likely, is still pos­si­ble.

RAL­LY­ING CALL: Al-Hi­lal’s Yasser Al-Qah­tani. (AFP)

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