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Micale under pressure as Al-Hilal face make or break AFC Champions League challenges

LONDON: It’s never a good sign when a coach says he is prepared for the axe, but there is no doubt the next two games have taken on monumental importance for Al-Hilal and their Brazilian boss Rogerio Micale. 

“I am not afraid of being dismissed from the job,” Micale said on Saturday after Al-Hilal crashed to a shock 4-1 defeat at the hands of AFC Champions League new boys Istiklol.

“We will continue to work hard and prepare for the next two games.”

The loss, which came just three days after Hilal had beaten the same opposition 3-1, means progression to the knockout stage is very much up in the air.

Only the group winners are certain of a place in the last 16 and as Istiklol, now the leaders, have a better head-to-head record against Hilal, if the Tajikistan powerhouse win both of their remaining games, the Saudi champions can’t finish first.

Three of the best five runners-up in the western zone will also progress and at the moment, Hilal occupy the third spot.

It is the most precarious of positions as, so it seems, is that of Micale.

In short, Al-Hilal need to win both their games to be sure, or almost sure, of a place in the next round starting against Shabab Al-Ahli  Dubai tonight in Riyadh and then against Uzbekistan’s AGMK on Friday.

Another defeat could spell the end of hopes of a fourth Asian title as well as Micale’s spell in Saudi Arabia.

The Brazilian was something of a surprise appointment in February to replace Razvan Lucescu after the Romanian was fired just months after winning the Saudi Arabian title and just over a year after lifting the Asian championship.

Micale, who led Brazil to the 2016 Olympics gold, had never coached outside his homeland before. 

League results have not been bad at all. Micale came in with the team in third and seven games later, they are top after five wins out of seven.

The fact that the two defeats have come against Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, traditional rivals for the title, can be seen as a comfort or a worry.

Is this a habit of losing when the pressure is on, or can only the best beat Hilal?

Regardless, Al-Hilal are level on points with Al-Shabab and the two meet on May 7 as the league resumes. 

If Hilal are out of Asia by then, the pressure will really be on. Micale’s initial contract is only until the end of the season as it is and fans have been here before with the club already being linked to other international coaches.

For Micale, the initial imperative is to win the next games as he knows full well.

“The defeat that we suffered was not acceptable, and I am the one who bears that loss and is responsible for that, but we must remain calm, forget what happened and bounce back for the next two games,” he said.

Micale will point to a crazy 15-minute spell last Saturday as something that will not be repeated.

All four goals came either side of half-time as everything Istiklol.touched turned to gold.

Al-Hilal had an incredible 73 percent possession but did not create enough quality chances.

As Peruvian star Andre Carrillo admitted after the game, after the Saudis took the lead, they became over-confident, expected a repeat of the win from three days previously and lost their focus. 

When Istiklol scored four, there was no way back with the Central Asians then happy to sit back in numbers to protect their sizeable lead with the hosts never really looking like they could get anything from the game.

The second-half foot injury suffered by Salem Al-Dawsari, just back in the team after recovering from a previous problem, was just another blow suffered.

He will not play any further part in the group stage. 

Micale was right to take responsibility for the loss.

Any overconfidence and underestimation of their opponents comes from the coach and he has to ensure that there is an improvement in attitude and approach.

He has the task of telling his players not to repeat the mistakes of Saturday and to remember the lessons while still trying to put it out of their minds and treat it as a blip.

There are positives in that Shabab Al-Ahli, who have collected a disappointing four points from the four games so far, need nothing less than a win.

This should give Al-Hilal a little more space and time when attacking but there has to be immediate improvement.

If the Riyadh giants can recover and go on to take the title at the end of this year, fans will look back on Saturday as the turning point, a wake-up call.

But if not, and Al-Hilal crash out of the competition later this week then the Brazilian’s time in Saudi Arabia may be over with the only question being whether he will see out the final five league games.