Russian clubs banned from next season’s Champions League

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After three weeks of AFC Champions League action, Al-Hilal’s focus returns to domestic affairs this week, starting on Tuesday with an away game against Al-Feiha. It is a must-win match and it remains to be seen whether a busy April schedule against continental opposition will stand them in good stead in terms of domestic aspirations.

The defending champions, of both Asia and Saudi Arabia, finished top of Group A in the continental competition with some degree of comfort. Having secured a place in the second round with two games to spare, collecting 12 points from their first four games, the Riyadh club were able to take their foot of the gas in the final group games, in which they drew with Sharjah and then lost to Qatari side Al-Rayyan. We should not read too much into those results, though, as their thoughts were already turning to the attempt to catch Al-Ittihad at the top of the Saudi Pro League.

There can be no more slip-ups in the title chase. The Jeddah giants are 11 points clear at the top of the table thanks to a run during which they have won 14 of the last 16 league games. There are a couple of reasons for second-place Al-Hilal to still have hope, however.

The first is that they have seven games remaining, compared with the Tigers’ five. If they can win the two games in hand, the gap will be reduced to five points. In addition there is still a meeting to come between the two teams this month and if Al-Hilal can also win that clash, the two teams will be very close indeed — and Al-Ittihad’s only defeat during their recent winning run came against the defending champions.

If any team can do it, then, it is Al-Hilal and they should be match-fit and sharp after their recent efforts in Asia; it is just to be hoped that they are not too tired.

Those four Champions League victories took the club’s winning streak to 12 under Argentine coach Ramon Diaz, who was appointed in February, which equaled the club’s second-longest winning run.

“We need to make sure that we take the opportunities that come in the game,” said Diaz ahead of Tuesday’s match. “We know that they are strong defensively and this is going to be a difficult match.”

Indeed, Al-Feiha have the best defensive record in the league, conceding just 19 goals in 24 games. Their problem has been at the other end, as they have only managed to score the same amount.

Al-Hilal will be relying on star striker Odion Ighalo, who scored twice in Asia, to continue the goal-scoring form that has seen the Nigerian hit the net 19 times in the league this season, four more than anyone else.

Moussa Marega and Matheus Pereira, meanwhile, did not show their best form in the Champions League and if Al-Hilal are going to catch their Jeddah rivals, the Malian and Brazilian will need to step up as the games come thick and fast this month.

This became even more important after striker Saleh Al-Shehri picked up a serious injury during the Champions League group stage, which will keep him out of action for several months. In addition, midfielder Mohammed Kanno is suspended.

There are a few other things for coach Diaz to think about aside from the job of catching Al-Ittihad at the top of the table. Despite the 12-game winning streak, he was criticized by some fans for the last two results in the Champions League last month. If he wants to earn a new contract when the current one ends in June, he needs to end the season strongly. There is an option for the club to renew the deal with the boss for another season but, as yet, no decision has been made.

Al-Feiha, meanwhile, have a few worries of their own. Striker Malek Al-Abdalmoneim is injured, as is defender Mukhair Al-Rashidi. Coach Vuk Rasovic will also be without Ghanaian midfielder Samuel Owusu.

They are sitting in eighth place but are not completely safe from relegation as they are just five points clear of the drop zone. A win on Tuesday would pretty much remove all their worries, however.

The league clash is not only important at both ends of the table but is also a dress rehearsal for the King’s Cup final, which will take place at the end of the season. Last month Al-Hilal defeated Al-Shabab in the semi-finals, while Al-Feiha squeezed past Al-Ittihad. Whichever team wins the final will earn a place in next year’s Asian Champions League but, for now, Al-Hilal are hoping that their efforts in this year’s continental competition will have prepared them well for domestic success in the coming month.

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