King Fahd Sports City has seen its share of historic occasions over the years, not least Al Hilal’s numerous successes in the AFC Champions League.
The sight of the cavernous stadium filled to the brim with fans decked out in the blue of Al Hilal has become almost commonplace, as the Riyadh club has emerged as a continental behemoth over the past decade.
But in late August, there was a different buzz in the air as fans descended on the stadium on the outer edges of Riyadh.
The match against Al Fayha, ordinarily, wouldn’t draw this much attention and fanfare. But this was no ordinary occasion. The eyes of the world were on Riyadh that night as Brazilian legend Neymar was unveiled by Al Hilal as their marquee signing ahead of the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League season.
While the match, surprisingly, ended in a 1-1 draw, nothing could dampen the mood around the stadium. Al Nassr had Cristiano Ronaldo, Al Ittihad had Karim Benzema, and now Al Hilal had their blue-chip stock in the man that would soon become Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer.
Neymar's Al Hilal debut
The prospect of the 31-year-old playing alongside Aleksandar Mitrovic, Malcom, and Salem Al Dawsari in a four-pronged attack was a mouthwatering one. But, unfortunately, it was one that never had a chance to properly materialise.
Neymar’s heartbreaking anterior cruciate ligament injury while on international duty in October has put the superstar on ice for up to 12 months while he continues his rehabilitation.
In most other teams, the loss of a lynchpin such as Neymar would be a devastating blow, leaving a void that is all but impossible to fill. Al Hilal is no ordinary team, however.
The RSL’s most successful club has barely missed a beat since the injury and go into this weekend’s top-of-the-table clash with Riyadh rivals Al Nassr sitting in first place, undefeated, and boasting the best attack and defence in the league.
So how have they managed to perform so well while missing the biggest, and some would say best, name on their team sheet?
No Neymar, No Worries
When you sign a generational talent like Neymar, it is easy to fall into the trap of building your entire side and system around that one player.
Perhaps it was the fact that Neymar was sidelined for the first month of the season, recovering from an ankle injury sustained while playing for Paris Saint Germain in February, but that has never been the case at Al Hilal. Neymar was the cherry on top of the cake rather than its filling.
With Neymar having missed the opening five matchweeks of the season with his new club, Al Hilal manager Jorge Jesus was forced to find a way to function without his star playmaker.
It meant Malcom, another high profile off-season recruit, assumed the role of creative fulcrum, with fellow Brazilian Michael and Al Dawsari preferred in the wide positions, and, of course, Mitrovic at the point of the attack.
When Neymar did return to action in September it simply gave Al Hilal greater depth. Malcolm returned out wide, at the expense of Michael, who became a valuable and potent option off the bench for Jesus.
After a month of action, and five games in Al Hilal’s famous blue kit, Neymar was just starting to find his feet and develop an understanding with those around him, particularly his compatriot, Malcom.
He found the back of the net for his debut goal in an AFC Champions League clash with Nassaji Mazandaran, and registered a couple of assists in RSL action against Al Riyadh and Al Shabab.
It was all looking so good, and Al Hilal were really finding their straps, before disaster struck. It was a cruel blow, not only for the club but also the entire league to see one of the marquee signings go down with injury so early into the campaign.
But having already navigated that first month of the season without him, Jesus simply returned to what had worked then. And the Al Hilal machine steamrolled on.
Your defence is terrified!
While any team is better for the presence of a player like Neymar, for Al Hilal they had are more than able support cast in Mitrovic, Al Dawsari, Malcolm and Michael.
They had to work hard to get Mitrovic to the club in the off-season after Premier League side Fulham continually rebuffed their initial offers for the Serbian striker.
The Serbia international’s form so far is proof of why the Al Hilal worked so hard to get him through their doors. In just 12 games he has found the back of the net 11 times, scoring in his past five RSL matches and eight of his past 10.
Mitrovic is a goalscoring machine and looks right at home at Al Hilal, as if he has been part of the furniture for years.
One man who has been part of the furniture for years is Al Dawsari, and at 32, the reigning AFC Player of the Year is producing arguably career-best form.
Buoyed by his stunning goal against Argentina at last year’s FIFA World Cup, the silky winger has taken his game to a new level, helping mitigate the loss of Neymar.
Already with seven goals to his name, the lifelong Al Hilal star is on track for his best season in front of the net, and his overall contribution has been immense.
But so has that of the entire team. That’s why Al Hilal remain undefeated in their opening 14 matches, despite their highest-profile name spending most of the season on the sidelines.
Every part of the team, from the defence, to the midfield, to the attack is perfectly in sync; working with and for each other in devastating fashion. Just ask Al Hazem, who last week were defeated 9-0.
To illustrate that point, for their 43 goals so far this season - which has them on track for a record come the end of the season - Al Hilal had 13 different goalscorers, the most of any team throughout the league.
And that is the hallmark of a great team. When one player goes down, even if it is their brightest star, another simply slots into his place and the machine continues on. That is Al Hilal this season.
From a pure spectacle point of view, it’s a huge shame not to see Neymar strut his stuff across Saudi Arabia on a weekly basis. But the way in which Al Hilal have responded to his absence is the reason why they currently sit at the summit of the RSL table.