Mohamed Salah and Egypt embrace underdogs tag ahead of Africa Cup of Nations final against Senegal

Expectations weigh heavy on Leonardo Jardim and Al-Hilal ahead of Club World Cup clash with Al-Jazira

ABU DHABI: Al-Jazira may be on their home soil of Abu Dhabi as they meet Al-Hilal in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup on Sunday, but the pressure is all on the Saudi Arabian giants. Nothing less than a win and a semi-final meeting with European champions Chelsea next Wednesday will do.

Unlike Al-Jazira, at the tournament as they are from the host nation of the UAE, the Riyadh giants are representing Asia after winning a record fourth continental title last November. There are other issues at play, however.

Al-Hilal are the most successful club in Asia and Saudi Arabia and that comes at a price – high expectations and constant pressure to win.

Leonardo Jardim may be able to still feel the cold metal rings of the AFC Champions League trophy in his hands, but the team are sitting in fourth in the Saudi Professional League as the season is almost two-thirds over and they are likely to slip further down the table in the coming days. 

There have been growing whispers in Riyadh about his future and a poor showing in Abu Dhabi would be a huge problem.

Al-Hilal’s expectations are not unwarranted in this case as the team should be too strong for the UAE champions. 

The clash will see the debut of Odion Ighalo for one. The former Manchester United striker is the joint top scorer of the Saudi league and has been snatched from Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab to replace the departing legend Bafetimbi Gomis. 

The Nigerian has big shoes to fill as the French star had scored over 100 goals in three-and- a-half years at the club and, despite being 36, had netted nine times this season so far, just three less than the new man. 

Ighalo will want to hit the ground running. Other new signings, goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Owais and right-back Saud Abdulhamid, should make their debuts in the tournament.

There are opportunities for others too. With Saudi Arabia flying high in qualification for the World Cup, and certain of a place in Qatar if they defeat China next month, these are good times for the country’s football.

Stars such as Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani are more than capable of playing overseas, and helping Al-Hilal go far in Abu Dhabi could help them go to Europe.

Inspiration captain Salman Al-Faraj is another standout and was sorely missed by Saudi Arabia as they lost 2-0 in Japan last week. He looks to be fit, as does South Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo. 

Unfortunately, the team will be without new signing Abdulelah Al-Malki, who picked up an anterior cruciate ligament injury in that game in Japan, and the midfielder will have to wait until next season to make his club debut, though it is to be hoped that the 27-year-old player will be fit for the World Cup, should the Samurai Blue qualify.

Al-Jazira have also had players busy on World Cup duty and are also not as well-placed, currently fifth, in their domestic league as they would like.

There are also players returning from injury, with star striker Ali Mabkhout coming on as a second-half substitute in Thursday’s 4-1 win over Oceania’s representative A S Pirae. Not too much can be read into the victory over the team from Tahiti who had a marathon journey to reach Abu Dhabi and a number of COVID-related absences to deal with too.

Al-Jazira boss Marcel Keizer was able to rest players, tired from their international efforts for the UAE in that first game.

“The problem we face normally is that six to seven national team players go out for two to three weeks. Now they all played together for a day,” the Dutch coach said. “The start to this tournament is good in two ways: I am happy that we won 4-1 and scored early. So, I could give some players rest, who needed it, and some other players, who needed minutes, stayed.”

The boss wants a big and passionate crowd for the crucial clash with Al-Hilal. “It always has been better for the players to play in a nice ambience. I thank supporters for their support. I hope they go back and bring in more people for the big game against Al-Hilal, who are the AFC Champions League winners,” Keizer said.

It is a big game for Al-Hilal too but they have their eyes on a bigger prize, a game with Chelsea. While Kashima Antlers of Japan and UAE’s Al-Ain reached the final in 2016 and 2018 respectively to lose to Real Madrid, no Asian team has beaten the European champions in this tournament. 

Like Al-Hilal, Chelsea may be continental title-holders but their domestic form has not been quite as smooth as it could be. Sooner or later, an Asian team will eliminate the Europeans and there is no reason why it can’t happen this time.

That is for the future. The immediate priority is, however, to beat Al-Jazira, for a number of reasons.