Change, however disappointing, finally arrived for Al Hilal this week.
Razvan Lucescu – once-exalted engineer of 2019’s hallowed AFC Champions League success and 2019/20’s subsequent reclamation of the Saudi Professional League – made way after a staggering decline in form witnessed his troops go from 12 wins in 13 matches, to three more victories in the proceeding 13 run-outs. Sunday’s 1-0 loss at lowly Damac kept them an unacceptable third and proved too much for a board who’d shown remarkable tolerance by the region’s short standards.
Enter, Rogerio Micale. Hardly a familiar name to most observers.
But this unfamiliar status also applies to 2020/21 leaders Al Shabab with Carlos Inarejos and 2018/19 champions Al Nassr with Alen Horvat. An unprecedented – and eminently curious – situation is at play whereby Riyadh’s three biggest clubs are now led, to varying degrees of permanence, by technical staff promoted from within.
It was Neymar who, rightly, dominated the headlines when Brazil were guided to gold by Micale at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Little fanfare, thus, greeted a 51-year-old who originally landed last December to lead the Under-19 side, fresh from being dismissed by Serie B’s Parana after five defeats from six fixtures.
But supporters of Hilal, and their rivals across the continent, should not make the mistake of immediately counting out a tactician whose greatest achievements at club level include Under-20 tournaments lifted a decade, or more, ago at Figueirense and Atletico Mineiro.
The promotion of Micale – until the end of the season, according to Arriyadiyah – should be labelled as an ‘intelligent gamble’. He, Inarejos and Horvat represent a shifting of outlook.
When the need for change previously arose, clubs in the Kingdom instantly looked to external options. Now, an increasing desire exists to access internal solutions first.
Nassr have, seemingly, decided to tie their development of exciting home-grown products and purchases of elite Saudi talent with a Croatian who boasts familiarity through his previous role as academy manager. Credit must also be given to predecessor Rui Vitoria, whose collective ethos honed at Benfica still shines through despite December’s departure.
Unheralded Spaniard Inarejos has continued his fine work from the U-23s. Shabab were five points off the pace in third when Pedro Caixinha was removed in January and now head into match-week 20 with a four-point advantage.
Micale will be held up to exacting standards. All Hilal bosses, caretaker or permanent/heralded or unheralded, always are.
But he will also be expected to coax advancements out of winter addition – and Saudi Arabia’s great hope – Abdullah Al Hamdan, plus 24-year-old goalkeeper Habib Al Wotayan. There will be others underneath the first team he must also look to better.
Premium imported talent is, of course, vital. Argentina metronome Ever Banega has utterly transformed expectations at Shabab.
It was the triumvirate of Vitoria, 2019 global top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah and Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat who provided the greatest influence on Nassr’s last title win. Ex-France, Lyon and Galatasaray striker Bafetimbi Gomis is still without compare in the Hilal dressing room.
All three clubs might soon pluck for an established name in the dugout. The SPL’s residual pulling power saw former Sevilla, Espanyol and Alaves boss Pablo Machin opt for promoted Al Ain little more than a fortnight ago.
The capital’s kings have rejected the typical path. For now.
It will be intriguing to see how far they are prepared to carry on in this unexpected direction.