Al Hilal face long road to redemption after relinquishing AFC Champions League crown to Urawa Red Diamonds

Al Hilal relinquished their AFC Champions League crown to Urawa Red Diamonds on Saturday after a 1-0 second-leg loss at Saitama Stadium 2002 saw them lose the 2022 final 2-1 on aggregate. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

After sweeping aside all that stood before them in their run to the AFC Champions League 2022 final and looking a genuine chance to retain their crown, back-to-back continental titles ultimately proved a bridge too far for Al Hilal.

Especially when they were missing star duo Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj.

With Al-Dawsari suspended and Al-Faraj injured for the second leg of the decider on Saturday, Al Hilal ultimately succumbed to a 1-0 loss to Urawa Red Diamonds at Saitama Stadium 2002 for a 2-1 aggregate defeat -- following a 1-1 draw in the opening encounter last weekend.

A third notable absentee on the night was ex-Porto striker Moussa Marega, whose spot in the starting XI as Al Hilal's fourth and final foreign player was taken by Andre Carrillo.

It would prove to be a decisive selection by Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz as the luckless Carrillo, in a desperate bid to clear a Marius Hoibraten header, could only slice the ball into the back of his own net for the only goal of the game on Saturday.

But to blame Carrillo for the loss would be unfair as he certainly offered plenty to Al Hilal, who created more than enough chances to score a goal of their own and perhaps should have achieved more than a draw in the first leg on home soil.

If anything, the bigger villain of the piece was Al-Dawsari after he robbed his team of his services in the second leg for a petulant kick-out a week earlier in Riyadh that saw him shown a straight red.

Despite the defeat, Al Hilal remain the competition's record champions with four titles and a runners-up finish is hardly something to be embarrassed about.

Most teams across the continent would be satisfied to lay claim to that.

Yet, Al Hilal are far from a regular club.

They are the most successful club in Saudi Arabia, one of Asian football's traditional powerhouse nations.

In addition to their four continental crowns, Al Hilal also boast the records for most triumphs in both the Saudi Pro League and King's Cup with 18 and nine titles respectively.

Not since 2014 has there been a year where they did not claim at least a piece of major silverware.

Only just at the start of the year, they caused a major stir by reaching the FIFA Club World Cup final, seeing off the likes of Wydad Casablanca and Flamengo before ultimately losing 5-3 to LaLiga giants Real Madrid in the final with a performance that was hardly humbling.

The lofty standards they have set for themselves is the very reason why 2023 is likely to be regarded as a failure or, at the very least, a disappointment.

Having lost their status as champions of Asia to Urawa, it seems only a matter of time before Al Hilal also relinquish their SPL crown.

With just five games to go in the 2022-23 campaign, Al Hilal find themselves fourth on the table and a massive ten points off the pace.

Even if leaders Al Ittihad are to be caught, it is far more likely that it will be Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr or Al Shabab who do so, trailing by three and six points respectively.

A consolation could come in the form of the King's Cup, with Al Hilal meeting Al Wehda in the final on Friday although the sense is that even winning that trophy would not be enough to salvage their season entirely.

Given their stature as well as their spending power, with rumours surrounding a move for a certain Lionel Messi refusing to go away, Al Hilal will be back.

Nonetheless, with their next available chance to reclaim the ACL -- and most likely the SPL -- 12 months away at the soonest, the road to redemption for Al Hilal will be long.