RIYADH: The Saudi Super Cup has only been around since 2013 but already seems like part of the football furniture with the latest instalment seeing champions Al-Hilal take on King’s Cup winners Al-Faisaly at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on Thursday.
In its seven editions, the Super Cup has been won four times by the league to three by the cup holders, and while the smart money is on Al-Hilal adding to their bulging trophy cabinet, Al-Faisaly are also desperate for another major trophy for reasons of their own.
Al-Hilal have lifted the prize twice before, in 2013 and 2018, but also know what it is like to be on the losing side; in 2016 and last year when they crashed to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr. Two weeks later coach Razvan Lucescu was out of a job.
Current coach Leonardo Jardim also needs to be careful. Defeat on Thursday would be dangerous for a boss whose job is not quite as secure as he would like.
Jardim may have won the AFC Champions League in November but results since then have been patchy. Indeed, last Friday’s 3-2 league win over Al-Faisaly was necessary as it followed a run of two points from the previous four games. At 2-0 down, the champions were in danger of dropping out of the title race altogether and as everyone in Saudi Arabian and Asian football knows, that could have spelt the end for the ex-Monaco manager.
Despite the continental crown, the league is Al-Hilal’s bread and butter and there is work to do for the powerhouse to get back in the title race. There is still a long way to go but sitting eight points behind the in-form leaders Al-Ittihad is far from ideal. Defeat on Friday will add extra fuel to the debate that surrounds Jardim’s future at the four-time continental champions.
The criticism is that Jardim is not getting the best out of what is surely the strongest team in Saudi Arabia and probably Asia. So often this season, Al-Hilal have relied on a moment of brilliance from one of their major stars such as Bafetimbi Gomis, Salem Al-Dawsari, Moussa Marega, or Salman Al-Faraj to get the points rather than the coach lifting the quality of the team as a whole.
There have also been questions asked about Matheus Pereira. The Brazilian playmaker shone last year in the English Premier League despite playing for West Bromwich Albion, a team that ended up getting relegated. Despite playing for the Saudi and Asian champions, the 25-year-old, who was chased by a number of clubs in England’s top tier as well as elsewhere in Europe, has yet to really stand out.
The Super Cup then is an opportunity to start the new year with a new trophy and Jardim will be pleased to welcome back South Korean defensive stalwart Jang Hyun-soo and midfield lynchpin Al-Faraj from injury.
Compared to the rarefied air at the top of the Saudi Pro League, there is less pressure at Al-Faisaly though that does not mean that their coach Daniel Ramos can relax when he comes up against his Portuguese compatriot for the second time in seven days. The King’s Cup win last year was the club’s first major trophy and to lift a second piece of silverware on Friday would be a huge deal.
Ramos has taken his players to a training camp in Dubai in order to prepare as well as possible.
The 51-year-old said: “In Dubai, we are working hard for the upcoming games. This does not just mean the Super Cup but also upcoming league games as well as the AFC Champions League. We are working hard to improve our performance both offensively and defensively.
“The Saudi Pro League is difficult, and we have seen clubs near the bottom win against the top teams and the strength of competition strengthens everyone’s desire to collect points,” he added.
His words are correct. Al-Faisaly have struggled this season in the league and losing their last three games has put them just a place and a point above the relegation zone. Winning the Super Cup would be a prize in itself but could also be a turning point in the season for the club and coach even if they are very much the underdogs.
“It is normal for everyone to expect Al-Hilal to win the Super Cup because they are a great team and Asian champions, but we are ready to give our best performance and surprise them,” Ramos said.
Ultimately, Ramos, who is working outside Portugal for the first time in his 20-year coaching career, knows in Saudi Arabia that losing important games can result in an early exit. “The large number of dismissals of coaches causes pressure for any coach, and I will do my best to get the best possible results in the coming period,” he added.
While the coach was at pains to point out that the team is not reliant on one player, it is understandable that Al-Faisaly were keen to delay the departure of Julio Tavares to the Africa Cup of Nations. The striker has scored six goals, 40 percent of the team’s tally this season, but has been called up by Cape Verde and is unlikely to be allowed to delay his departure. With French midfielder Romain Amalfitano battling for fitness, there is plenty of work for Al-Faisaly to do but a second major trophy is still in sight.
While Al-Faisaly would love to win the Super Cup, Al-Hilal simply need to. It should be quite a game.