Al-Hilal have announced their third coach this season with Jose Morais taking over from Rogerio Micale for the remaining five games of the 2020-21 campaign.
Jose Mourinho’s former assistant will be thrown straight into the action as the league leaders face second-placed Al-Shabab on Friday with the two teams level on 48 points. An opening game win will not only be the perfect start for the Portuguese tactician but will be a huge step towards a perfect ending for the Riyadh giants and a 17th league title.
Morais, who was number two to Mourinho at Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, may have plenty of international experience but also has something to prove, especially in Asia. While the 55-year-old’s last job was in South Korea where he won back-to-back league titles with Jeonbuk Motors, it was not quite as impressive an achievement as it looks.
Jeonbuk clinched both championships right at the death, taking advantage of Ulsan Horang’i late-season wobbles. In both years, Ulsan had been the better team ahead of Jeonbuk but fell away right at the end and the Motors were on hand to step in. This is a club that spends the most in South Korea, has the biggest wage bill and expects to win titles, as a record of six in the past seven seasons shows (the one year it didn’t happen was because the club was docked nine points as a punishment for being involved in a bribery scandal).
Still, winning any league championship is an achievement regardless of money spent and expectations. Jeonbuk showed their winning mentality to take advantage of Ulsan’s lack of the same quality even if the club lacked its usual spark going forward last season. A trophy is a trophy. In Asia however, there are more questions and, here, Jeonbuk under Morais underperformed.
Two-time winners Jeonbuk, like Al-Hilal, is a club that sets great store by continental success and always take the AFC Champions League seriously. The club became champions of Asia before they became champions of South Korea. In 2019, Jeonbuk were eliminated at the second round stage after a penalty shootout defeat by Shanghai SIPG. While that was a disappointing exit, it was worse in 2020. Last year Jeonbuk did not make it out of the group stage and was very much third-best to Yokohama F. Marinos and, once again, Shanghai. It was Jeonbuk’s worst performance in the competition since 2012.
Such failures for Morais in riyadh are unlikely to be tolerated.
Al-Hilal, along with Pohang Steelers of South Korea, is the most successful club in Asia with three championships. The importance given to the continental competition can be seen by the departure of Micale. The Brazilian, appointed to replace Razvan Lucescu in February until the end of the season never seemed completely comfortable in the hot seat. While he had led his home country to gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he had never worked overseas.
League form was not bad - he took the champions from third when he arrived to first with five games remaining - but the Champions League group stage that finished last week, was a very close-run thing. Al-Hilal made it through to the second round but only as the third-best runner-up and only due to goals scored. It was the narrowest of margins. The club hierarchy felt that finishing below Istiklol of Tajikistan, a team making a first appearance in the competition, was unacceptable especially after a 4-1 loss to the Central Asians. That defeat almost sent Al-Hilal out of the competition and it sealed Micale’s fate.
Morais certainly has a lot more international experience than his predecessor. As well as his spells under Mourinho, he has had head coaching jobs in Tunisia, Ukraine, Turkey and Greece as well as England where he was in charge of Barnsley in 2018.
His travels also took in Saudi Arabia with Al-Hazm from 2007-2008 and Al-Shabab from 2014-2015 when he led the team to the Saudi Super Cup. It is a little ironic then that his first game is against his former club on Friday. If he can lead the team to victory in that table-topping clash then Al-Hilal will be close to the championship.
And he will be close to getting the job on a longer-term deal which will mean that he will be in place in September when the Riyadh club takes on Tehran titans Esteghlal in the AFC Champions League Round of 16. It is the perfect opportunity for the new boss to show that he can bring success in Asia as, at the moment, the continental achievements section of his resume remains blank.
By John Duerden
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