Malcom leads Al Hilal quadruple bid in absence of injured Neymar

Saudi Arabian side take on Al Ain in Asian Champions League semi-finals with team on target to win four trophies this season despite absence of injured superstar

Malcom celebrates after scoring for Al Hilal in their Saudi Super Cup win over Al Ittihad at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on April 11, 2024. Getty Images
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In Barcelona, they remember Malcom for his tears. They flowed, uncontainable, on the night he thought all his dreams were coming true.

He was a 21 year old who had just scored his first goal for the club where his heroes used to play. He had done it at San Siro, a grand setting, in the European Champions League. And he had only been on the pitch, a late substitute, for two minutes.

It was an elegant finish, the strike to put the Barcelona of 2018/19 a goal up against Inter Milan, a neat switch on his favoured left foot and a pinpoint shot.

That’s the same cutback manoeuvre, shifting right to left to put a close marker off balance that is now a widely recognised Malcom trademark.

Last Thursday, in Abu Dhabi, he inflicted something similar on Al Ittihad’s Ahmed Hegazi ahead of the third goal of Al Hilal’s 4-1 victory in the Saudi Super Cup final.

After that one, the celebration included no tears, but not much restraint either. Malcom stripped off his Al Hilal jersey at the cost of a yellow card. He has always been an expressive footballer, exuberant in his successes, and less than stoic when fortunes have turned against him.

Those tears at San Siro five seasons ago were a snapshot of momentary fulfilment in what would be a frustrating chapter of a career that has traversed many peaks and troughs.

Its highs would include the decisive goal for Brazil in an Olympic gold medal match; a goal for Barca against Real Madrid on his clasico debut; and, aged just 20, one the finest long-range goals in France’s Ligue 1 of the past decade, the rocket he scored for Bordeaux against Dijon.

That teary night at San Siro also felt special. Malcom called his mother back home in Brazil as soon as he reached the dressing-room.

What his family are seeing now, week in, week out, is the true lift-off of a gifted entertainer, the matured 27-year-old Malcom as a consistent contributor to an Al Hilal team on the crest of a wave.

He’s back in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday for an Asian Champions League semi-final against Al Ain; he has cause to imagine it will be more fulfilling than his last excursion into the last four of a major continental competition. That was with Barcelona, shortly before he ended his stay in Catalonia.

He was a late substitute in a famous defeat, 4-0 to Liverpool at Anfield, a turnaround that erased Barca’s 3-0 first-leg advantage. The humiliation would cast a shadow over Barcelona. Malcom, bought for €41 million from Bordeaux in the summer of 2018, was shipped out, sold for a similar fee to Zenit Saint Petersburg.

And with that he joined a procession of gifted attacking players who passed in and out of Camp Nou, bought on the proceeds of Barca’s selling Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record €222m in 2017 and never quite delivering as Neymar had.

There was Philippe Coutinho, there was Antoine Griezmann, and, briefly, there was Malcom, for whose signature Barca had gazumped Roma, and who arrived at Camp Nou beaming about how thrilled he felt to be at the club where his heroes, Neymar and Ronaldinho, had played.

His story at Al Hilal, who committed, with add-ons, €60m to prise him from Zenit last summer, is of an apprentice outshining his idol Neymar.

He has his stamp on one Saudi trophy already, with his two goals plus a dazzling back-heeled assist in the Super Cup final, and since the turn of the year has been strengthening his case to be considered among the shrewdest signings of a year of unprecedented recruitment into the Saudi Pro League.

He made an instant impact, with a hat-trick on his league debut against Abha. He’s now averaging a goal every two games across competitions. There have been half a dozen assists, and much gratitude from Aleksandar Mitrovic, Al Hilal’s leading marksman, for being on the end of several of them.

There are thanks, too, from Al Hilal manager Jorge Jesus that without Mitrovic, ruled out of the Tuesday’s first leg against Al Ain with injury, Malcom is galvanising Al Hilal’s forward line, maintaining the club’s target of four trophies by the season’s end.

They lead the domestic table by a distance, meet Al Ittihad again in the King’s Cup semi-final later this month and are favourites to reach a third successive Asian Champions League final.

Above all, the Al Hilal juggernaut is not missing the injured Neymar one jot. The Brazilian, now in the final stages of recuperation from the cruciate ligament tear that interrupted his Pro League adventure just five games after arriving in Riyadh last September, has seen his teammates build up a sequence of 34 successive victories mostly from the sidelines.

He has watched Malcom ease into all the roles earmarked for his hero Neymar: He’s thrived in the centre of the pitch, in a number 10 position, been effective spearheading quick counter-attacks, and operating from either wing. He’s in terrific form, too, his Super Cup brace his fifth and sixth goals in his past four games.

He is a challenge for any marker, his predictable preference to shift on to his left foot compensated by the variety of tricks, with the outside of the boot the instep or the heel, he can conjure with his favoured tool.

“He’s quick, he’s got great balance, and he unsettles defenders,” the former Barcelona star and 1994 Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov, says of Malcom. “And he’s always got an eye for goal, with that cannon of a left foot.”

Updated: April 16, 2024, 3:29 AM