Saturday’s “Arab Classico” between AL-Hilal and Al-Ahly might be a pleasant and exciting bonus for football fans in the region, but it presents something of a headache for the coaches — especially for Al-Hilal coach Leonardo Jardim, whose Saudi champions are suddenly looking at an unforgiving fixture list.
Egypt’s Al-Ahly are the most successful team in African football with 10 continental titles. Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal are the most successful team in Asian football with four continental titles. Many would say this third and fourth-placed play-off between the two teams at the FIFA Club World Cup is the biggest meeting ever between Arab clubs in Asia and Africa, and there are plenty of bragging rights at stake.
Both teams are emerging from semifinal defeats at the tournament. Al-Ahly got past Monterrey of Mexico but then lost 2-0 to South American champions Palmeiras on Tuesday. Al-Hilal thrashed Al-Jazira of the UAE 6-1 and then lost 1-0 to Chelsea on Wednesday.
After falling behind in the first half, the Riyadh giants rallied after the break to give the European titleholders a real scare. Al-Hilal earned plenty of plaudits from their performance, though the higher profile of the opposition helped, and have a chance to finish third and become the first Saudi Arabian team to do so.
Al-Ahly earned sympathy after missing a number of players due to the scheduling clash between FIFA’s competition and the African Cup of Nations where Egypt reached the final last Sunday. Jardim knows that there is still plenty of talent in the ranks of the Red Giants, however.
“I went to watch the Palmeiras match with Al-Ahly, and I think it’s a team with quality and technical skills,” Jardim said. “They like to take on the match. It would be a good fight, I’m sure. This is not the match we wanted to play; we wanted to play the final. But it will be a good match.”
As good as it may be, it presents a dilemma for Al-Hilal. This Arab Classico is a big game, but Al-Hilal have just played two big games in the last few days and, more importantly, there are big games to come. In the long-term, these are what will determine the fate of Jardim.
Al-Ahly are also busy but will return home to Cairo, a domestic season that is just getting going and a league in which they are first. The Saudi Professional League is at a very different stage, however. It is two-thirds completed for most teams, though Al-Hilal have games in hand due to their continental and global commitments.
“For both teams, it will be the third match in seven days, and that’s why we need to rest in order to not have injuries for important matches in the rest of February,” added Jardim.
And beyond February, the Saudi Arabians know that they return home in fourth place and a long way off the pace in the Saudi Professional League title race. As things stand, the four-time Asian champions are going to have to improve not just to successfully defend their title but even just to finish in the AFC Champions League places. Many coaches have lost their jobs for failing to add to Al-Hilal’s championship collection, but there is no doubt that the ax awaits for not even getting close.
That is the balance that Jardim must deal with. If this were the final, the Portuguese boss, who is under pressure at home, would go for it with the world title at stake. There’s not much difference in finishing third or fourth, but no Saudi team have finished third before, and the derby atmosphere adds to the must-win pressure.
History adds to the burden too. There have been six clashes between the two teams in past competitions, with the Cairo giants winning two, the Saudi Arabian titans winning one and the other three ending all square. More encouraging for Al-Hilal fans is that Saudi teams have won all three of their past FIFA Club World Cup matches against rival Arab teams. Al-Nassr defeated Raja Casablanca of Morocco 4-3 in a thrilling game back in 2000. Al-Ittihad overcame Al-Ahly 1-0 at the 2005 tournament. Then, Al-Hilal eliminated Esperance Tunis in 2019.
A win and a second successive third-place finish with Al-Ahly would give coach Pitso Mosimane more ammunition as the South African prepares to negotiate a new deal with the club. “My dream is to stay for several years with Al Ahly and to be a legend, like Manuel José, who won four CAF Champions League titles during seven years,” Mosimane said. “I hope to stay here for seven years. This is a hard thing to do because Al Ahly is a great club and I always do my best to meet Al Ahly’s high expectations.”
Jardim has yet to have the same success and at this point, he may feel that he needs to prioritize domestic concerns.