Kingdom’s locally bred horses secure spots at Saudi Cup 2023

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Al-Hilal have unfinished business at the FIFA Club World Cup. When the Blues kick off against Wydad AC on Saturday in Rabat, Morocco, they hope it will be a case of third time lucky in front of a global audience.

The Saudi Arabian and Asian champions have yet to progress past the last four but this time could be different. Success would not just be welcome in its own right but would reclaim some of the global spotlight that has been stolen recently by Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr with their titanic signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the 2019 and 2021 (which actually took place in 2022) editions, the Riyadh giants won their opening games, against Esperance de Tunis on their debut in Qatar and then a 6-1 thrashing of Al-Jazira representing the host nation of the UAE a year ago.

First time around, they were defeated in the semifinals by Brazilian giants Flamengo, and their run was ended last time by Chelsea after a hard-fought game with the European champions.

Such experience will, it is hoped, stand the team in good stead for the coming challenges.

“Because we have played twice before in the Club World Cup, I expect that we will reach the final this time though there are difficult games ahead of us,” Al-Hilal’s Colombian star Gustavo Cuellar said as the team arrived in Morocco on Monday. “There is enough talent in the team to reach the final.”

Wydad present, on paper, a tougher opening game than Al-Hilal have had in the two previous tournaments. The Casablanca club defeated Al-Ahly of Egypt in the final of the African Champions League last year to become continental champions for the third time. They are also on home soil and sure to be backed by a passionate crowd.

Moroccan football is on a high at the moment after the national team reached the semifinals of the 2022 World Cup, defeating Belgium, Spain and Portugal on the way to giving defending champions France a tough game. Similar success in the club edition would be cited in North Africa as further evidence that Morocco are the leading Arab football nation.

For Al-Hilal it is probably good news that Walid Regragui is no longer at the helm. The 47-year-old is the toast of the coaching world after leading Morocco to global glory. He took over the national team not long after leading Wydad to the African title and was replaced in Casablanca by Mehdi Nafti.

“I am up to date with what is going on with the other teams and so I know very well what awaits us at the Club World Cup,” Nafti said in the build-up to the tournament. “We have motivation, confidence and capabilities, and the competition is playing in Morocco, and this will guarantee us great support from our supporters. We have to remain calm and focus on our opening game with Al-Hilal.”

Al-Hilal coach Ramon Diaz knows how important this tournament is to the 18-time Saudi Arabian champions. After all, it is because of the Club World Cup that the Argentine took the reins in Riyadh. A year ago, a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Ahly of Egypt in the playoff for third place meant that Leonardo Jardim was given his marching orders. Diaz then led the team to an amazing run in the Saudi Professional League that resulted in another championship.

Domestically, Al-Hilal are in a better position than they were a year ago as they are just a point off the top, though they have played a game more than leaders Al-Nassr.

The form is not perfect however with just three wins in the last seven games, not a terrible record but standards are very high at the most successful club in the history of both Saudi Arabian and Asian football.

That run included a shock 1-0 defeat to Al-Feiha in the semifinal of the Saudi Super Cup on Jan. 26. After returning from last year’s Club World Cup, Hilal moved into top gear and overhauled Al-Ittihad’s double-digit lead, to take the title and a similar run would be welcomed this time though the hope is it comes after a better performance in Morocco.

Diaz has called up a strong squad. The main absence is that of Salman Al-Faraj as the captain, who went off injured in that historic Saudi Arabian win over Argentina at the World Cup in November.

If Wydad are overcome then there will be a rematch with Flamengo. With the South American champions coming to North Africa off the back of mixed form domestically, Al-Hilal would be in with a chance of a big win and a place in the final, probably against European champions Real Madrid.

That would be a major success but there is a long way to go before a possible meeting with arguably the world’s biggest team in a global final and it starts with a tough game in Morocco.

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