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RIYADH: Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal have moved quickly at the start of 2022 to strengthen their overworked squad, although it remains to be seen whether it comes early enough to save their title defense.

The defending champions have signed international goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais from Al-Ahli and then former Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid from Al-Nassr. These additions may not make the kind of headlines that the big-name foreign arrivals command, but they will stand the Riyadh giants in good stead going forward.

It is understandable that coach Leonardo Jardim is looking to add players as there are plenty of demands on his squad in the coming weeks and months. 

Next month there is the FIFA Club World Cup and a chance for the Saudi Arabian powerhouse to take on Chelsea in the semi-final, as long as they defeat probable quarter-final opponents Al-Jazira of the UAE.

Al-Hilal fans say theirs is the biggest club in Asia and, with a record four continental championships and a social media following of over 10 million, one that even some of Europe’s top teams can’t match, it is a persuasive argument. It means, however, that the 17-time champions will, and should, take the Club World Cup seriously. If they could become the first Asian representative to defeat Europe’s, it would make headlines around the world and be a great advert for Saudi Arabian and Asian football.

And then there is the AFC Champions League. 

Al-Hilal, once again correctly, always set great store by performing well in Asia’s flagship tournament. There are going to be tough games in May and with only the top team in each group certain of a place in the knockout stages, there are unlikely to be many opportunities to rest players or take things easy. 

And then there are four very important World Cup qualifiers in January, February and March for the national team with good results securing a place in Qatar. Al-Hilal will be providing a healthy proportion of the Green Falcons for the climax of the qualification campaign.

It all means lots of demands on the Al-Hilal squad and the addition of more players will be welcomed by fans. The team already has good goalkeepers and full-backs, but Al-Owais and Al-Obaid should get their chance to show what they can do in the famous blue shirt sooner or later.

It is looking increasingly unlikely, however, that the new signings will be collecting a championship medal come the end of the season. While Al-Hilal were lifting the Super Cup last Thursday, after a hard-fought win over Al-Faisaly that went to a penalty shootout, it can’t have escaped the attention of fans and media that this was another week in which the champions were in action in a cup competition while their rivals for the Saudi title were chalking off another game in the league season.

The day following that entertaining Super Cup clash, Al-Ittihad were defeating Al-Feiha 2-0 to make it six wins out of six in the league. 

That run has taken the Tigers onto 35 points after 15 games, exactly halfway through the season. One place and three points behind are Al-Shabab, who have played a game more, with a resurgent Al-Nassr three points further back. And Al-Hilal? They are in fifth and, while there is a game in hand over the leaders, the gap is a massive 11 points.

Is the club’s title defense over? Not quite, not yet, but it means that the Riyadh giants can’t afford any slip-ups. It could well be that another defeat means it is pretty much all over. Just look at Tuesday’s clash against Al-Tai, the all-important game in hand and one that Al-Hilal need to win. To be 10 or 11 points behind Al-Ittihad just looks to be too much to overcome.

If the champions were in great form there would be more confidence, but the 3-2 win over Al-Faisaly in the league, just a week before their Super Cup meeting, came after just two points from the previous four games and involved the team coming back from 2-0 down. Al-Hilal are just not playing that well and are relying on moments of magic from their big name stars, like the stunning overhead kick from Salem Al-Dawsari last week, rather than team fluency or organization.

To make matters worse, the top three are going very well at the moment and have fewer demands on their squads. 

From the last five games, Al-Hilal have taken five points. Al-Nassr in third have collected 12, Al-Shabab 11 and Al-Ittihad the maximum of 15. In short, Al-Hilal are now in a situation where they need to get back into top gear and go on a winning run. This is at a time when they have two major international tournaments to look forward to, as well as a huge King’s Cup quarter-final tie against local rivals Al-Nassr next month.

Al-Hilal are not out of the title race yet, but with their rivals in good form and with plenty of games to think about, they can’t afford to make any more mistakes or they will be handing over the league trophy over to one of Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr or Al-Shabab this May.

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