A 2-0 loss to historic rivals doesn’t seem like ideal preparation for Asia’s premier club competition.
Al Hilal’s competitors in the west shouldn’t get carried away, however. There are reasons a tricky Saudi Professional League title defense can bolster AFC Champions League hopes, starting with Group A kick off Thursday against Tajik powerhouse Istiklol.
A head-to-head title race with Ever Banega’s Al Shabab is no doubt contrasting to 2019/20 when it comes to top dominance. This intense competition with a rival from Riyadh has all the characteristics of the 2018/19 run against Al Nassr.
Hilal narrowly lost the Saudi supremacy in 2018/19. However, this competitive spirit resulted in an unbearable 19-year wait for Asia’s success to come to an end in November 2019.
These contrasting campaigns covered their cherished run to ACL fame.
The 2019 group stage was less challenging than the expanded version of 2021. A rampant coronavirus outbreak would then reward the 2020 defense at the same time during the shortened run in Doha in September.
The previous format witnessed a progression in the Top 2 Guarantee. Aside from the pandemic, it was also played in a familiar manner for several months, being at home and on the go.
Now only the top place or one of the three best runners-up from five pools with four teams is enough. Everything is decided in one place within 16 hectic days, luckily for the three Saudi teams, all of which have been classified as home advantage.
That feeling of intense action should be familiar to Rogerio Micale’s men, however. Regardless of the controversial merits of Tajikistan’s first participant in the group stage or the sixth-best club in the Uzbekistan Super League 2021 in the AGMK.
A tough test can be expected from Carlos Eduardo’s Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who went 21 games unbeaten by winning the Arabian Gulf Cup last week. The senses must be completely honed on the way to first place – they should not be easily accessible.
Important lessons were learned in the process.
Micale’s six SPL games have resulted in four wins and two losses. All were achieved with a 4-4-1-1 system.
Since only four foreigners of the six in Hilal’s books are admitted to the ACL, the dead weight cannot be carried.
Former Italian maestro Sebastian Giovinco shone in the 2019 double-headed final against the Japanese Urawa Red Diamonds. However, he now endures a goalless spell of 19 games.
The trust was won through the improvement of Argentinian Luciano Vietto, who has scored two goals and an assist from his last five games and can replace injured Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari.
The merits of Micale compared to its famous predecessor Razvan Lucescu can be discussed. So also the relative form and function of this Hilal team in relation to its immediate predecessors.
In the current fight, knowledge should have been gained. They must be observed in the coming weeks.
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