Riyadh: Al-Hilal have had an amazing few weeks on the global and continental stages but were brought down to earth in Riyadh on Monday, losing 2-1 at home to Al-Fateh.
More than that, however, the surprise defeat may just have ended the champions’ chances of successfully defending their Roshn Saudi League title.
That loss means that the Blues are now 13 points behind leaders Al-Nassr. Optimistic fans and coach Ramon Diaz will point to the two games in hand as evidence that it is not all over.
They will also talk about last season.
Then, as the team returned home from the FIFA Club World Cup, they were 16 points behind Al-Ittihad and ended up winning their games in hand, defeating their rivals, and taking title No. 18, a third in succession and one of their most famous triumphs to date.
Yet this year feels different. For one, Al-Nassr do not look like slipping up in the way that Al-Ittihad did last year. From October 2021 to March 3, 2022, the Jeddah club collected 37 out of a possible 39 points and were strolling to a first title since 2009, but then managed just 11 out of the final eight games allowing Al-Hilal to slip in.
Al-Nassr have won their last four, and while they may not always be as fluid as coach Rudi Garcia would like, they look to have found a way to win. They also have a certain Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored eight goals in the last five games.
More than that, however, he brings a winning mentality to a team with a tight defence. At home to bottom team Al-Batin on Friday, they were 1-0 down as the 90 minutes were up but still managed to come back in added time to win 3-1.
More importantly, Al-Hilal are not playing especially well.
Defensively, they are looking vulnerable and nervous. Three times they took the lead, the third in injury time, at newly-promoted Al-Wehda last Thursday — their first since returning from overseas — and three times they were pegged back. And against Al-Fateh there was a lack of energy and passion, and it was the visitors who played with discipline and aggression. The game was over before a late, late consolation from Saleh Al-Shehri.
In some ways, Al-Hilal cannot be blamed as there are three major international competitions that must be considered.
The 2022 World Cup was a tournament to remember, especially Saudi Arabia’s famous 2-1 win over Argentina. The two goals were scored by Al-Shehri and Al-Hilal clubmate Salem Al-Dawsari. In all, there were 12 Al-Hilal players who went to Qatar.
It is perhaps understandable that the world’s biggest sporting event has been disruptive, and they have dropped 11 points in the nine games since, not terrible but not the return of a team that needs to keep pace with an in-form league leader.
Then in February came the FIFA Club World Cup where the Riyadh giants were simply sensational. In the opening game, they went toe-to-toe with African champions Wydad AC on their home soil of Morocco in front of a partisan crowd of 50,000. It was two hours of intense football followed by an emotional penalty shootout win. Then they collected one of the best results in their history, defeating South American champions Flamengo.
That earned a final against the mighty Real Madrid where Al-Hilal may have lost 5-3 but won even more respect and admiration around the globe. It was a physically and mentally draining week.
Almost immediately however they were heading to Qatar for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League and three games in the space of six days.
Shabab Al-Ahli were quite comfortably disposed of in the second-round match though Foolad of Iran proved to be difficult opponents in the quarter-final. Then came a historic semi. Playing Qatar league leaders Al-Duhail in their own backyard looked to be a very difficult task indeed but Al-Hilal ran out 7-0 winners. It was a stunning result.
Given those foreign exertions, a domestic hangover is to be expected. Al-Hilal may be a winning machine but cannot keep going forever.
Defender Ali Al-Bulaihi said: “We have played every two or three days. Other teams rest for five days, and we have been away for more than a month, but we do not make this an excuse. The league is not over yet.”
Not officially, but it is slipping away. A year ago, Al-Hilal had the extra benefit of a lacklustre Club World Cup and the subsequent new coach bounce as Diaz came in. They then won 12 of the remaining 13 games. A similarly spectacular run will be needed this time if there is to be a fourth successive championship, but it does not look likely, and they should not be blamed for that.
Whatever happens, it has been a good season. The Club World Cup will live long in the memory and there is also the final of the Asian Champions League coming in April.
Al-Hilal have done amazing things overseas this year but coming from so far from behind for a second successive time at home is looking to be beyond even this team.