Al Hilal’s lurch into crisis mode has continued apace. Calls to ditch boss Zoran Mamic, little more than two months into his tenure, increased on Monday night when defeat was tasted for the first time in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
What is going wrong with the Crescent and are there signs the mid-season replacement for revered Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus can turn it around? Here, Sport360° takes a look:
After two-successive transfer windows of significant spending, a desire to end their 19-year wait for Asian glory is all encompassing at Hilal.
Ex-Benfica and Sporting Lisbon tactician Jesus’ reluctance to commit for the full 2019 continental campaign – it runs from February-November – caused a ruthless decision. Out went the 64-year-old on January 30 and in came Mamic, fresh from a stirring run to the 2018 Club World Cup final with Al Ain.
A seamless transition saw nine of the ex-Croatia international’s first 11 fixtures won, to a commanding combined score of 24-7. But the Saudi Professional League holder’s goalless draw with bottom-placed Ohod on March 23 has sent them into a tailspin.
Brazil defender Bruno Uvini’s 97th-minute winner in the intense Riyadh derby, less than a week later, against Al Nassr witnessed a six-point lead upon Mamic’s arrival to descend into a painful one-point disadvantage to his former club. Uncertain wins from 2-1 and 2-0 down at Ettifaq, in the King’s Cup quarter-finals, and Al Hazem, in the top flight, followed.
A growing disquiet reached fever pitch on Monday in Doha when Hilal found themselves 2-0 in arrears by the half-hour mark against Esteghlal, the Persian Gulf Pro League’s fourth-placed side. Ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis’ fortunate second-half goal then could not prevent a loss, which nevertheless left them top of Group C at the halfway point.
Another reversal at fellow SPL giants Al Ahli Jeddah on Friday cannot be countenanced.
Only a nuanced change in style has been applied by Mamic at King Saud University Stadium – variations of a 4-2-3-1 formation and emphasis on width remain.
If the approach has remained, broadly, static, results haven’t. Jesus’ win percentage of 76 per cent and goals-per-game ratio of 2.6 has declined to 68.8 and 2.1 under his successor. Conjecture will surround culpability.
Results had slowed in the final months of Jesus’ incumbency. After he won 12 of his first 13 matches, a decline to five victories in 12 began.
Mamic picked up the pieces from Saudi Arabia’s disappointing 2019 Asian Cup and has had to manage pressurised ACL commitments.
These challenges have been faced without a functioning engine room. Abdullah Otayf played twice for him before serious injury, fellow sublime centre midfielder Salman Al Faraj has been unavailable throughout.
Australia centre-back Milos Degenek’s subsequent struggles up the pitch have been predictable.
Further fitness issues have hampered Brazil talisman Carlos Eduardo’s influence at No10.
Niggles for support striker Jonathan Soriano, further, meant Gomis became overburdened. He scored once from February 25-March 29, prior to netting three times in his last two run-outs.
Yet, the decision to deploy a 4-1-4-1 formation in the second half at Nassr proved disastrous. An over-exposed defence then careered towards an early cup exit at Ettifaq.
The soft headers that Esteghlal plundered further point towards a lack of defensive rigour.
All blame cannot be apportioned to Mamic, yet he isn’t blameless.
Only once in Hilal’s recent downturn have they been dominated – critically, this came at Nassr.
They lost against Esteghlal with 68-per-cent possession and 13 attempts on goal, to their opponents’ six. A combined 34 efforts drew only one goal from the 1-1 draw with Al Wehda and stalemate that followed in the SPL versus Ohod.
Mamic’s men are still creating opportunities. Converting them is the issue.
This is where psychology is key. The last-minute Nassr loss, seemingly, deepened nagging doubts and denied salvation.
Hilal are 15 points and four places better off than weekend opponents Ahli. April 2016 is also the last time they lost to them in normal time, a run that encompasses nine matches.
This statistical superiority must be reflected at King Abdullah Sports City. If not, press the panic button.
The residual impact of the King’s Cup should be profoundly felt when round 26 kicks off in the Saudi Professional League.
Stirring comebacks from relegation-threatened Al Ittihad and wayward champions Al Hilal will be fresh in the memory. Elsewhere, a campaign of rare promise is unfolding at Al Taawoun.
Here are the major talking points:
TWIST OF FATE
A disastrous week appeared to have, somehow, taken a turn for the worse when Al Ittihad found themselves 2-0 down to minnows Al Batin in Monday’s King’s Cup quarter-final.
Harrowing memories would have been fresh from the previous Friday’s capitulation from 2-0 ahead against Al Faisaly, with the eventual 3-2 defeat denying this historical giant a first escape from the relegation places in 2018/19.
Another distressing defeat would have been too much, surely, to handle for a club whose confidence has received hammer blow after hammer blow.
Instead, a remarkable rally ended in an eventual 4-3 victory and a berth in the semi-finals for the holders.
Attackers Romarinho and Aleksandar Prijovic must continue to be pivotal figures for Jose Luis Sierra when they play Batin, this time in the top flight, on Friday.
The former made the most of Garry Rodrigues’ late withdrawal against Batin, netting the clincher. Serbia striker Prijovic also got a brace, halting a two-match scoreless streak.
They’ve made it to the play-off spot. The serenity of safety is, tantalisingly, close.
Hopes of Hilal regaining top spot in this round can be filed away as ‘highly optimistic’.
New leaders Al Nassr – courtesy of last weekend’s rousing derby beating of the Crescent – will surely make it eight SPL triumphs on the spin when they travel to mid-table Al Raed on Thursday.
Instead, the mission for Hilal is to keep the gap at one point and apply pressure on the same night at 11th-placed Al Hazem.
It is difficult to gauge the mood in boss Zoran Mamic’s ranks. A depleted side were put through the ringer at Ettifaq on Monday, making it 2-2 deep into second-half injury time through centre-back – who else? – Mohammed Jahfali’s towering header and then finally going ahead through Peru winger Andre Carrillo’s rebound in the 105th minute.
They either prevailed, in trying circumstance, without the likes of Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo and tired France striker Bafetimbi Gomis, or scraped through a manic match.
How they weather the suspension of centre midfielder Mohammed Kanno will be a key determinant of the Hilal’s hordes’ happiness.
Everything is coming together nicely for 2018/19’s surprise package.
Last term, Taawoun finished a forgettable seventh in the top flight and exited the King’s Cup at the round of 32 to opponents drawn from Prince Mohammad bin Salman League.
Fast forward 12 months and Tuesday’s 3-0 thumping of Al Wehda has reinforced an image as a team to fear in the semi-finals. If results fall their way in the SPL, with third-placed Al Shabab Riyadh hosting Al Ahli Jeddah on Friday and Taawoun meeting second-bottom Al Fayha on Saturday, then a gatecrashing of the 2020 AFC Champions League spots will occur.
They rival pacesetters Nassr for experiencing the greatest transformation under the eight-player foreign quota.
But, in contrast, their smartest pick-ups – such as 19-goal Cameroon striker Leandre Tawamba and steady Brazil goalkeeper Cassio – were not procured at exorbitant cost.
At a time when the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s technical committee has highlighted continued financial folly by many of the Kingdom’s clubs, Taawoun stand apart.
Peru winger Andre Carrillo emerged as the extra-time hero when his rebound earned a rollicking 3-2 King’s Cup quarter-final win at Ettifaq and ended Al Hilal’s mini-slump.
Zoran Mamic’s relieved visitors to Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium had also required a towering 95th-minute header from Saudi Arabia centre-back Mohammed Jahfali to avoid defeat in normal time.
A first-half penalty from wide man Mohammed Al Kuwaykibi and Argentine forward Cristian Guanca’s low 87th-minute finish had twice given Ettifaq the lead, with veteran midfielder Mohammad Al Shalhoub’s 25-yard free-kick past the hour mark previously making it 1-1. The stage was then set for Carrillo, who reacted quickest to right-back Yasser Al Shahrani’s saved stinger in the 105th minute.
UP FOR THE CUP
Such was the intensity of end-to-end action in this undulating, electrifying tie, it felt like watching tennis.
A ridiculous 29 attempts were registered by Hilal, while Ettifaq did their bit with 20.
Remarkably, this mania was not a one-off in games between the clubs. November’s 4-1 victory for Hilal in the Saudi Professional League contained a combined 30 attempts on goal, in 90 minutes.
RESPITE FOR MAMIC
The walls were continuing to close in on Hilal boss Zoran Mamic.
Jahfali’s last-gasp intervention then prevented a third-successive winless match, in all competitions. Carrillo’s clincher later exorcised a modicum of pain from Friday’s Riyadh derby loss to Al Nassr that saw a long-term lead in the Saudi Professional League surrendered.
Mamic will be a relieved man. He fielded a depleted side as injury and fixture intensity bit.
A repeat of the second-half switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation eventually came up trumps, unlike at Nassr.
There is much to admire about mid-table Ettifaq’s approach.
They put faith in exciting young Saudi talents, like wingers Abdulrahman Al Aboud and Al Kuwaykibi. They also regularly pick out unheralded foreign gems – Colon loanee Guanca now has 15 goals in 26 run-outs.
They, agonisingly, camp up short on Monday night. But their strategy remains solid.