A 2-0 defeat to historical rivals might not seem ideal preparation for Asia’s premier club competition.
Yet Al Hilal’s competitors in the West should not get carried away. There are reasons why a tricky Saudi Professional League title defence can bolster AFC Champions League hopes, beginning with Thursday’s Group A kick-off versus Uzbekistan’s AGMK.
A neck-and-neck title race with Ever Banega’s Al Shabab certainly contrasts with 2019/20’s commanding run to top-flight domination. This intense competition with a Riyadh rival has all the hallmarks of 2018/19’s run-in against Al Nassr.
Hilal, narrowly, lost out on Saudi supremacy in 2018/19. But channelled this competitive spirit into ending an insufferable 19-year wait for Asian success, during November 2019.
These contrasting campaigns covered their cherished run to ACL glory.
The 2019 group stage was less demanding than 2021’s expanded version. A rampant coronavirus outbreak would then put paid to 2020’s defence at the same juncture during September’s abridged running in Doha.
The previous format witnessed a top-two finish guarantee progression. It was also, pandemic aside, played out over several months in a familiar home-and-away fashion.
Now only top spot, or being one of three-best runners-up from five four-team pools, will do. Everything will be decided within 16 frantic days at one location, fortunately for the three Saudi sides they’ve all been decreed home-turf advantage.
This feeling of intense action, though, should be familiar for Rogerio Micale’s men. No matter the debatable merits of Tajikistan’s first-ever group-stage entrants in Istiklol or the 2021 Uzbekistan Super League’s sixth-best club in AGMK.
A stern examination, though, can be expected from Carlos Eduardo’s Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club who made it 21 games unbeaten with victory in last week’s Arabian Gulf Cup showpiece. Senses must be fully honed in pursuit of first place – it shouldn’t be readily attained.
Important lessons have, also, been learned along the way.
Micale’s six SPL fixtures have produced four wins and two, chastening, losses. All were attained with a 4-4-1-1 system.
With only four foreigners allowed in the ACL from the six on Hilal’s books, deadweight cannot be carried.
Ex-Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco shone in 2019’s double-headed final versus Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds. He’s now, though, enduring a 19-match scoreless spell.
Trust has been earned by improving Argentine Luciano Vietto, who has recorded two goals and one assist from his previous five matches, that he can replace injured Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari.
The merits of Micale compared to celebrated predecessor Razvan Lucescu can be debated. So, too, the relative form and function of this Hilal squad in relation to its immediate predecessors.
Insights should have been gleaned among the current struggle. They must be heeded in the coming weeks.
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