Al Hilal, dominant and undefeated, enjoy RSL season to remember

There is winning the title, and then there is winning the title.

Al Hilal are no strangers to the ceremonial process of lifting silverware, but this season’s Roshn Saudi League triumph was just that extra bit special.

The raw numbers are staggering: 34 games, 31 wins, 3 draws, 0 losses, 96 points, 101 goals scored and 23 conceded. Jorge Jesus’ side smashed records and set a new benchmark that might not ever be matched, even by themselves.

While much was made of the Guinness World Record winning streak of 34 consecutive matches, their ‘Invincibles’ achievement has passed with less fanfare. However, it is no less significant an achievement.

In the major European leagues, Bayer Leverkusen achieved the same feat in the German Bundesliga this season, while Juventus did so in the 2011-12 Serie A. Perhaps the most famous undefeated season of all was Arsenal’s 2003-04 English Premier League campaign.

Al Hilal can now add their name to that prestigious list - again - after they won a remarkable 31 of their 34 matches this season.

While it is not unique in Saudi Arabia either, with this the second time Al Hilal have achieved the feat, the first being in the 2010-11 season, the others - including Al Shabab the following campaign and Al Ahli who finished second in 2014-15 despite going all season unbeaten - were achieved when the RSL season was 26 rounds long.

That doesn’t take away from the achievement - undefeated is undefeated - but none of those were as dominant as Al Hilal were this season.

Al Hilal and Al Shabab both drew seven of their 26 matches, for a win rate of 73 percent, while Al Ahli had a win rate of 65%, with 17 victories. Al Hilal’s win rate this season was an astounding 91%.

When it comes to league domination, they are without peer.

Stung by missing out on silverware last season, when they were forced to watch fierce rivals Al Ittihad lift the trophy, this was always going to be a season of redemption for the Riyadh outfit.

Al Hilal signalled their intentions early with the appointment of the highly rated Portuguese manager, Jorge Jesus. He returned to the club with unfinished business in mind after leaving early in a previous stint in charge of the capital giants, back in 2019.

Not content with bringing in a hugely credentialed manager, Al Hilal also joined the fray by bringing in a plethora of standout stars from Europe, headlined by Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Portugal’s Ruben Neves. Both arrived from the Premier League.

Oh, and a certain someone called Neymar as well.

With Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Kalidou Koulibaly also adding hordes of top-level experience, all the ingredients were in place for a serious tilt at silverware. Yet hefty challenges were also expected from Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, Karim Benzema’s Al Ittihad and Riyad Mahrez's Al Ahli.

Al Hilal’s season started in fine style with a comfortable 3-1 win over Abha thanks to a hat-trick on debut from new signing Malcom, but a draw against Al Fayha in their home opener, the game at which Neymar was unveiled, raised a few early question marks.

Any questions that were raised, though, were comprehensively answered over the following months. Al Hilal’s first major test came in early September against Al Ittihad in Jeddah, and at half-time Jesus’ side were on the backfoot, trailing 3-1 at the interval.

But their stunning second-half turnaround, scoring three goals in the space of eleven minutes, demonstrated the power within this team.

There were other close calls along the way, but Al Hilal’s ability to dig themselves out of trouble saved them countless times. In the end, it was a champions’ mentality.

More than 30% of Al Hilal’s goals came in the final 15 minutes of matches, while on four occasions this season, stoppage-time goals (or 89th minute as it was in one case) rescued either a draw or turned one point into three.

It shows a deep-seated belief that has been instilled in the team, and it’s no coincidence that those four came in the back half of the season when Al Hilal were flying at their highest. This was a team that believed they would win every game, and confidence like that can be self-fulfilling - as it proved this season.

One of those occasions came in the third final game of the season against second-placed Al Nassr. With the title already wrapped up - Al Hilal sealed the trophy with four rounds to spare - Al Nassr were intent on halting their arch-rivals’ unbeaten campaign and opened the scoring inside 30 seconds to stun the champions.

But deep into injury-time at the end of the second half, Al Hilal did what title-winners do: they found a way. While Al Nassr fumed over the awarding of the penalty, converted emphatically by Mitrovic, that Al Hilal put themselves in that position was testament to their never-say-die attitude.

It was the ultimate proof, if any further was needed, that this side simply could not be beaten this season.

While the 2023-24 trophy will sit alongside all the other 18 league titles collected in the club’s storied history, it deserves its own pride of place in the cabinet. Because, for a blemish-free Al Hilal, this was no ordinary league title.