Current Form (All competitions): W-W-W-D-W
Last time out:
In the quarter final, Al-Hilal welcomed Lekhwiya in front of 1,000 fans. That is quite odd, associating the term ‘1000 fans’ and a club with the caliber, history and name such as Al-Hilal. Their fans were a hindrance to their club after a match ban that only allowed precisely 1,160 Al-Hilal fans inside the stadium to view a fantastic showing, live.
Al-Hilal weren’t affected by the lack of fans (verifying their status as a contender once again, this time on all fronts) and were rampant against the Qatari Champions. Ailton Almeida’s pressing paid its dividends and it helped open the scoring, destroying the already inefficient game plan from new appointment but familiar face, Djamel Belmadi.
Belmadi has been subject to unusual decisions lately, where 2014 saw him take Qatar to high points such as the Gulf Cup win only to dismantle his ‘legacy’ in such short time by bringing in a batch of foreign players (the disappointing Mohammad Tresor and Mohammad Muntari come to mind in that tournament) into the Asian Cup squad. This saw Qatar embarrass themselves against the UAE, cruised by Iran and possibly the worst of them all: lose to Bahrain.
In the match against Al-Hilal, he set out his team with no cover on the flanks in a 4-3-1-2. Doing so against Al-Hilal is making your own bed in Asia. They have some of the fastest, mobile, nimble and intelligent players to complement their dominance on the flanks. Nevertheless, Al-Hilal were perfect and should have won by more than 4 goals due to some very dubious (and confirmed as dubious) refereeing decisions. Al-Hilal had booked their tickets to the semi-final, there was no doubt of their passage into the next round.
The Blue Wave’s fans didn’t forget the ban they were hit with, and absolutely filled the away stands in Doha. A 2-2 draw was enough to see Lekhwiya say goodbye to the competition. In hindsight, everybody expected Al-Hilal to crush the Qatari Champions.
Injuries / Suspensions
Al-Hilal play with a 3-6-1 formation akin to Liverpool in the second half of the 2014/15 season, using their wing backs as wingers and boasting very intelligent and experienced defenders. Jahfali the worst out of the back 3 but the most revered due to his ‘Moment of the Season’ which brought Al-Hilal the King Cup, is still a dependable defender on form (which he currently is on).
The absence of Digao leaves Al-Hilal with the option of moving to a 4-2-3-1 using two centre backs instead of Ahmed Shrahili.
Kwak Tae-Hwi is the leader of the pack yet the weak link of the defence ironically. Isolate him as Al-Nassr did in the Riyadh Derby (league) last season and you will score goals. The reason for that is Al-Hilal’s wing backs are stationed very high thus leaving the centre backs to fan out wide and the central figure (Kwak) of the three vulnerable to any smartly executed counter attacks.
Digao adds power and pace to the back line, a much needed dose of it however his absence due to a two-match Asian ban is a huge blow for Al-Hilal. Moving onto the midfield and although it is a box of 4 on paper (centrally) with the wing backs flanking them, the defensive midfielder (Kariri) will drop as a destroyer to ensure the safety of his partners: the onrushing midfielder from deep plus the two attacking midfielders.
Kariri is 35 yet he is still going and doing it well, as he solidifies himself as the most important player in the team. Had it been Al-Ahli who played in the quarter final against Al-Hilal, you could have seen some smart use by Olaroiu to take advantage of Al-Faraj in Kariri’s role. Al-Faraj is a versatile player but struggled to get comfortable with Kariri’s role: keep the ball under pressure, provide a support option for the centre backs and wing backs under immense pressure and counter press, alongside his shrewd technique of winning the ball. His most important feature is one that can link him with Busquets: covering space.
The vibrant attack of Al-Hilal is a universal one although the ‘new’ version of it can struggle to score goals without a recognised striker. Ailton is not an outright goalscorer while Eduardo’s primary role is not to solely score. It remains to be seen how Al-Hilal break down Al-Ahli through crossing (one of the primary attacking outlets of the Blue Wave) where the opposition centre backs are proficient in the air.
Current Form (All competitions): W-D-W-W-W
Last time out:
The signing of Rodrigo Lima has been a masterstroke for Al-Ahli. He has scored in every single game since his arrival at the club and will possibly continue to do so. His goals are not tap ins either, with immaculate quality being shown in the goals he scores. He did so in both legs of the games against Iranian outfit Naft Tehran.
The first leg saw a more conservative Al-Ahli snatch the win via an away goal from none other than Rodrigo Lima, helping them return to Dubai with a sigh of relief. A first half goal from Lima in the second leg in front of a full house at the Rashid Stadium all but ensured Al-Ahli’s ticket to the semi-final, and after Ahmed Khalil scored a “panenka” in the 50th minute it looked to be over.
That was until Dubai’s large Iranian contingent spurred the opposition on, helping them bring the aggregate back to 3-1 with just over half an hour to go. If Naft Tehran scored two goals they would have gone through via away goals, meanwhile Al-Ahli were agonisingly wasteful in attack much to the frustration of Alireza Mansourian, whose side failed to capitalise on the space behind a surprisingly open Al-Ahli.
A national anthem sung by Emirati and foreign fans showed how much of an important night this was, as Al-Ahli made history by surpassing the group stage for the first time and achieving last four status too.
Injuries / Suspensions
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Cosmin Olaroiu bases his team on having high fitness levels, a level of tactical awareness and emphasis on the psychological side of the game. He wants his team to be stable before a big match, stating personally to Ahdaaf that ‘even if it is a final, I will prepare my players in the same way. Even if it is a friendly match against a 3rd division team, I will prepare my players in the same way.’
We mentioned the proficiency of the centre backs in the air, but what Khamis is underrated in is his tactical intelligence. Couple that alongside the defensive midfielder-cum-centre back Kwon Kyung Kwon, who possesses the ability to physically impose himself on strikers and play the ball out of the back with ease.
The full backs are Walid Abbas – a centre back by trade – down the left hand side, a supporter to the midfield rather than a marauding full back unlike the right flank-based Abdulaziz Sanqour, who has been instrumental in the start to the season. Defensive midfield consists of the magnificent youngster Majed Hassan and energetic partner Habib Fardan, a box to box midfielder.
It is in attack where Al-Ahli maximise their dominance with a plethora of options available with each player. Creativity and silky skills from Ribeiro, drive and off the ball movement from Al-Hammadi, energy and big game mentality of Khalil and the absolute quality Lima provides in link up play, goalscoring and take ons. For the first time ever, there is hope in an Emirati club reaching the heights of Al-Ain in 2003.
However, Al-Ain succumbed to Al-Hilal at this stage away from home. There is no doubt that the stadium in Dubai will be absolutely filled come the second leg, but the first leg in Riyadh is going to dismantle the hopes of Al-Ahli if we look back at Al-Ain. Al-Ain had Gyan on hot form once again, yet they couldn’t capitalise on their best squad in recent years.
Now looking at Al-Ahli who have never reached this stage and are managed by a league-beast (but a continental minnow) in Cosmin Olaroiu, it is hard to see how the Red Knights will win. What Olaroiu possesses over Zlatko Dalic of Al-Ain is his mentality and intelligence, plus his experience across the whole region itself. Cosmin Olaroiu did manage Al-Hilal before, it is worth mentioning.