Preview: Real Madrid faces Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal for club world title

AP , Saturday 11 Feb 2023

Having surprisingly made it this far, Al-Hilal has already won before taking on Real Madrid in the final of the Club World Cup.

Al Hilal
Al Hilal s Moussa Marega, left, duels for the ball with Flamengo s David Luiz during the FIFA Club World Cup semi final match between Flamengo and Al Hilal at the Ibn-Batouta stadium in Tangier, Morocco, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. AP


The club from Saudi Arabia stunned Brazil's Flamengo in the semifinals and stands in the way of Madrid collecting a record-extending eighth title in the competition.

If Al-Hilal does manage an even bigger upset in Morocco's capital of Rabat on Saturday, it would be another testament to the growing power of soccer outside its traditional strongholds of Europe and South America.

``Football is changing,`` Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. ``And you can see that by the fact that Al-Hilal is in the final.''

Perhaps the only thing in Al-Hilal's favor is that many of its players know what it is like to pull off the extremely improbable.

The team coached by Argentine Ramon Diaz includes members of the Saudi Arabia national side which stunned Argentina in their World Cup opener in November.

Saudi Arabia's scorers in that 2-1 win over Argentina, Salem Aldawsari and Saleh Alshehri, play for Al-Hilal. Aldawsari scored twice in Tangier on Tuesday to help secure a 3-2 win over Flamengo, the Copa Libertadores champion.

Al-Hilal, which has won a record four Asian Champions League titles, also features Nigerian journeyman Odion Ighalo and former FC Porto striker Moussa Marega.

``We will play one of the most important and beautiful matches in our history,'' Al-Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf said. ``We are physically and mentally ready to play the final against Europe's champions.''

Just having a team in the final is another boost for Saudi Arabian soccer, after the country flexed its economic muscle to become a bigger global player in the sport. Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund bought Newcastle in 2021, and its domestic league recently scored a huge win when Al-Nassr, a rival of Al-Hilal, convinced Cristiano Ronaldo it was time to continue his illustrious career outside Europe.

``Football is more global. It is no longer Europe versus South American,'' Ancelotti said. ``We're up against a good team, who have individual qualities and a lot of players in the Saudi national team who did well in the World Cup, and players with a lot of experience in Europe.

``We have great respect for them, and they showed their quality by knocking out Flamengo in the semifinals.''

Karim Benzema and defender Eder Militao joined Madrid in Rabat after they missed the 4-1 win against Egyptian club Al Ahly on Wednesday due to injury. Ancelotti said it was still unclear whether they will be ready to play in the final. If Benzema can't play, Brazilians Vinicius Junior and Rodygo will likely be tasked with leading the attack.

The Club World Cup is considered a relatively minor title for European clubs due to its short length _ only two games for the Champions League winners. That said, Madrid always takes the competition seriously and needs to regain some winning momentum. It lost the final of the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona last month and has fallen eight points behind its fierce rival in the Spanish league after losing at Mallorca 1-0 last weekend.

Madrid won the UEFA Super Cup to start the season and is attempting the difficult defense of its Champions League and Spanish league double from last season.

Madrid was successful the last five times it played for the club world title following triumphs in the Champions League. It did it in 2014 and from 2016-18, and also in 2002 in what was called the Intercontinental Cup _ a one-game final between the European and South American champions. Madrid last failed to win the world title in 2000, when it lost the Intercontinental Cup to Argentine club Boca Juniors.

Flamengo will play Al Ahly in Tangier on Saturday to determine third place.

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