Jorge Jesus's Al Hilal future in the balance as Neymar denies rift

Hilal are unbeaten in seven league games to sit second, but a disappointing showing in Asia and against lower-tier opposition have raised questions over the Portuguese coach's future

Jorge Jesus is in his second spell as Al Hilal coach. Getty
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Seven games into the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League season and only Al Hilal remain unbeaten, sitting second in the table a point behind leaders Al Ittihad.

Such form would normally be a cause for optimism, instead the nagging sense is that Al Hilal are a team failing to function.

An exceptional summer of recruitment kicked off with the signing of Ruben Neves from Wolves and culminated in the purchase of Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain. Both were signed for club and league record fees.

While there was disappointment in the King Salman Cup – Hilal lost the final to Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr in extra time – the 'Blue Power' chalked up four wins in five league games before September's international break, including a famous comeback to defeat Al Ittihad 4-3 in the Saudi Clasico.

Neymar's return to action for Brazil, where two goals saw him surpass the legendary Pele as his country's all-time record scorer, paved the way for the mercurial forward to return to Saudi Arabia to help spearhead its most decorated club to challenge on all fronts.

The 31-year-old had been unveiled to the Hilal faithful to much fanfare in August but a long-term ankle injury had delayed his debut. When it came, off the bench in a 6-1 thrashing of Al Riyadh, there was a party atmosphere as the former Barcelona star dazzled in a 30-minute cameo.

By the time Neymar was ready to make his full debut expectations were sky high. Few questioned the wisdom of trying to shoehorn Neymar into a forward line scoring goals for fun.

A home fixture in the AFC Champions League against debutants Navbahor from Uzbekistan was supposed to be a stroll in the park for the four-time continental champions. Instead, Jorge Jesus’s men had to be rescued by a header from defender Ali Al Bulayhi deep in added time to salvage a point.

A damaging 1-1 draw against a Damac side without a win all season saw Hilal surrender top spot in the Saudi Pro League to Al Ittihad. Jorge Jesus continued to struggle to fit Neymar into his lineup. Ten matches into the season, he is yet to find his best starting XI or build a consistent tactical shape for the side.

A midweek trip to Hail for a King’s Cup encounter with second-tier side Al Jabalain only added to the frustration. Hilal needed a moment of magic from Neves to settle a tie in which they struggled to break their opponents for over an hour, producing a futile style of possession football with little in the way of penetration and chance creation.

Reports of Neymar’s unhappiness at the club and an uneasy relationship with his boss emerged in European media, but the marquee signing was quick to deny them, taking to social media to refute the allegations. But questions over Jorge Jesus' future will only intensify if performances and results don't improve.

The 69-year-old had previously managed Al Hilal in 2018/19, leading them to the Super Cup title. While his brand of high-octane football excited the fans, it was his fiery attitude and inability to man-manage his squad that eventually cost him his job. When reports of his return emerged over the summer, supporters hoped for more of the former and less of the latter, but just over a month into the campaign, they are getting the less desired version of the Portuguese veteran.

Sacking him a second time would be a costly decision, with the club reportedly obliged to pay up the remainder of his $8 million contract if they are to part ways with him. Tthere is no clear consensus from the club on whether to stick with Jesus, Potential replacements linked with his job include Marcel Koller, the 62-year-old Swiss in charge of Al Ahly who led Egypt's most successful club to a historic quadruple of league, cup, CAF Champions League and super cup titles last term and former Spain, Sevilla and Wolves boss Julien Lopetegui.

It is understood any change in Jorge Jesus' position is most likely to be decided during the upcoming October international break, giving the Portuguese three more games to turn things around, starting with the a derby match against Al Shabab on Friday.

Updated: September 28, 2023, 6:49 AM