Expectations hang heavy over Leonardo Jardim and Al-Hilal ahead of Club World Cup clash with Al-Jazeera
ABU DHABI: Al-Jazeera may be on home soil in Abu Dhabi as they take on Al-Hilal in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup on Sunday, but the pressure is entirely on the Saudi giants. Nothing less than a win and a semi-final meeting with European champions Chelsea next Wednesday will suffice.
Unlike Al-Jazeera, at the tournament as they hail from the host country of the United Arab Emirates, the Riyadh giants represent Asia after winning a record fourth continental title last November. There are, however, other issues at play.
Al-Hilal are the most successful club in Asia and Saudi Arabia and that comes at a price: high expectations and constant pressure to win.
Leonardo Jardim may still be able to feel the cold metallic rings of the AFC Champions League trophy in his hands, but the team sit fourth in the Saudi Professional League as the season is nearly two-thirds over and they are likely to slide further down the chart in the coming days.
There have been more and more rumors in Riyadh about his future and a poor performance in Abu Dhabi would be a huge problem.
Al-Hilal’s expectations are not unjustified in this case as the team should be too strong for the UAE champions.
The clash will see the debut of Odion Ighalo for one. The former Manchester United striker is joint-top scorer in the Saudi league and was snatched away from rivals Riyadh Al-Shabab to replace outgoing legend Bafetimbi Gomis.
The Nigerian has big shoes to fill as the French star has scored over 100 goals in three and a half years at the club and, despite being 36, has netted nine times this season so far, just three less than the new man. .
Ighalo will want to hit the ground running. Other new signings, goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Owais and right-back Saud Abdulhamid, are set to make their tournament debuts.
There are also opportunities for others. With Saudi Arabia leading in World Cup qualifying and the certainty of a place in Qatar if they beat China next month, these are good times for the country’s football.
Stars such as Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani are more than capable of playing abroad, and helping Al-Hilal go far in Abu Dhabi could help them go to Europe.
Inspirational captain Salman Al-Faraj is another star and was sorely missed by Saudi Arabia who lost 2-0 in Japan last week. He looks fit, as does South Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo.
Unfortunately, the team will be without new signing Abdulelah Al-Malki, who suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in that match in Japan, and the midfielder will have to wait until next season to make his club debut, even if that is to be hoped for. that the 27-year-old will be fit for the World Cup, should the Samurai Blue qualify.
Al-Jazeera have also had busy players in the World Cup and are also not as well placed, currently fifth, in their domestic league as they would like.
There are also players returning from injury, with star striker Ali Mabkhout coming on as a second-half substitute in Thursday’s 4-1 win over Oceania representatives AS Pirae. One cannot read too much of the win over the Tahiti team who had a marathon trip to reach Abu Dhabi and a number of COVID-related absences to manage as well.
Al-Jazeera boss Marcel Keizer was able to rest the players, tired from their international efforts for the UAE in this first game.
“The problem we normally face is that six to seven national team players go out for two to three weeks. Now they have all played together for a day,” the Dutch coach said. “The start of this tournament is good in two ways: I’m glad we won 4-1 and scored early, so I was able to rest some players, who needed it, and other players, who needed minutes , remained.
The boss wants a large and passionate crowd for the crucial clash with Al-Hilal. “It has always been better for players to play in a pleasant atmosphere. I thank the fans for their support. I hope they come back and bring more people for the big game against Al-Hilal who are the AFC Champions League winners,” Keizer said.
It’s also a big game for Al-Hilal, but they have their eyes on a bigger prize, a game with Chelsea. While Japan’s Kashima Antlers and UAE’s Al-Ain reached the final in 2016 and 2018 respectively only to lose to Real Madrid, neither Asian team has beaten the European champions in this tournament.
Like Al-Hilal, Chelsea may be the continental title-holders, but their domestic form hasn’t been as smooth as it could be. Sooner or later, an Asian team will knock out the Europeans and there’s no reason why it can’t happen this time.
It’s for the future. The immediate priority, however, is to defeat Al-Jazeera, for a number of reasons.