Asian kings Al Hilal can still hope for a grand finale when they meet Mexico’s Monterrey in Saturday’s Club World Cup third-place play-off.
A trio of unanswered second-half goals on Tuesday witnessed the 10 men of the 2019 AFC Champions League holders lose 3-1 to Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo and miss out on a glamorous global decider against UEFA giants Liverpool. Recompense arrives at Khalifa International Stadium in the preamble versus the mighty CONCACAF victors, who were a 91st-minute Roberto Firmino tap-in away from making the showpiece.
Here are the talking points:
LUCESCU’S ‘MENTALITY’ LITMUS TEST
It’s a phrase Liverpool fans have learned to love.
Jurgen Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ have swept all before them in 2019, no matter the circumstances. This insatiable desire for further success was evident in Qatar, wave after wave of attacks belatedly gaining reward moments before the final whistle against Monterrey.
This attitude is admirable – and enviable. It is also provides a lesson for the Hilal players that their coach Razvan Lucescu will be eager to see them heed.
The collapse against Flamengo from 1-0 ahead was chastening. Salem Al Dawsari’s deflected first-half strike was well worked and well deserved, at that stage.
It would be easy now to wind back and concentrate fully on a run of seven domestic matches by January 25. Especially after the mental rigours required to end an agonised 19-year wait for continental supremacy, plus the club’s large Saudi Arabia contingent then competing at the Gulf Cup.
Hilal, however, should be better than that.
A club that purports – with justification – to be Asia’s most illustrious. One who have never before competed on this global arena.
Lucescu must demand an indominable spirit from his troops against Monterrey.
Concession of this match could play into a dangerous opinion that their job is done with ACL glory.
Beyond finishing an unsatisfactory fourth in the Club World Cup, this stance may have a detrimental impact on the sizeable challenge of unseating Saudi Professional League champions Al Nassr that will dominate the months ahead.
SUSPENSIONS SHAKE UP
Discipline has been an issue for Hilal in Doha.
The excellent 1-0 quarter-final victory against CAF champions Esperance de Tunis – settled by ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis’ insouciant flick and volley – was stained by Saudi Arabia midfielder Mohammed Kanno’s rash second booking. Peru winger Andre Carrillo would then receive a straight red card late on against Flamengo, ending distant thoughts of a rousing comeback.
It will be interesting to see how Lucescu precedes from here. Should the Romanian prioritise technique, physicality or sentimentality?
Skipper Carlos Eduardo was frank in his assessment of where the last-four tie against his compatriots went wrong.
“Our opponents looked more comfortable than us. Physically, we weren’t good enough in the second half,” the Brazilian midfielder told FIFA.com.
The statuesque – and returning – Kanno offers the obvious cure if this is the problem that must be solved versus Monterrey.
Hilal, though, only saw 40 per cent of the ball against former boss Jorge Jesus’ challengers. Abdullah Otayf was given the fleeting last seconds against Flamengo.
His metronomic passing may be favoured ahead of Kanno.
Then, there is the emotive case of club legend Mohammad Al Shalhoub. A call may be made to honour his 21-year stint in the first team with a start versus Monterrey in place of Carrillo, much like the winger/playmaker appeared in the 94th minute of the ACL decider at Urawa Reds.
The younger Nawaf Al Abed would be the logical choice. Monterrey’s proficiency and speed on the counter ensured they turned 31-per-cent possession versus Liverpool into 16 attempts on goal.
TIME TO REFLECT
A final word, then, on the poignancy of this fixture.
Hilal have gone through the gamut in 2019. From Jesus’ acrimonious – and sudden – January departure, to the shame of being smashed 5-0 by Al Taawoun in the King’s Cup semi-final that terminated Zoran Mamic’s troubled reign.
Then there was May’s succession of the SPL crown to Riyadh rivals Nassr, before the unquantifiable highs of Saitama Stadium 2002 last month and the end of a near two-decade wait to rule Asia.
This is not the game Hilal dreamt of playing. Yet they can still put a wreath on this year’s achievements against Monterrey.
It is another goal worth striving for.
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