Riyadh: The dust has yet to settle after another heart-breaking AFC Champions League final defeat, but Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal will look to start afresh and make amends, having learnt of their opponents in the group stage draw for next year's event.
Earlier this week, the draw for the 2018 AFC Champions League placed Al Hilal in Group D, setting the stage for a series of mouth-watering clashes. The Saudi giants have been drawn alongside Esteghlal, Al Rayyan and the winner of the play-off between Al Ain and Al Malkiya.
Al Hilal and Esteghlal have a history between them in Asian competitions and memorably faced off in the final of the 1991 Asian Club Championship, when the former came out on top to become the first Saudi side to win the Asian title.
Qatar's Al Rayyan are also familiar opponents for Al Hilal, after the teams played out two epic encounters in the group stage in 2017, both of which were won by Al Hilal.
Whoever progresses from the play-off between Al Ain and Al Malkiya, footballing neutrals will love to see them take on Al Hilal.
2003 champions Al Ain will be looking to take revenge after the Saudis ended their Asian hopes in the 2017 quarter-final.
As for Bahrain's Al Malkiya, they will be making their debut in Asian competition and will undoubtedly relish an opportunity to play against Al Hilal, who are one of the continent's most successful sides.
The task for Ramon Diaz and his Al Hilal side will now be to progress through what promises to be a difficult group and mount another challenge for that elusive title.
Speaking to the-AFC.com ahead of the second leg of the 2017 final, Al Hilal legend Sami Al Jaber had opined that the team’s consistency in Asia was built on its strategy.
“We always view Al Hilal as an example of stability; this is very important to mention because you see continuity with the technical staff and the administration at the club,” said Al Jaber.
“Al Hilal have been working on short, medium and long-term plans since 2009, which has benefited the club, as you can see by them being in two Asian finals over a three-year period.”
The Riyadh-based team’s plans to ensure continuity will be strengthened by the continued presence of star man Omar Khribin.
The Syrian striker made his move to the club permanent by signing a four-year deal in June, before going on a scoring spree that took Al Hilal to the cusp of winning the AFC Champions League title.
Khribin’s ten goals saw him receive the AFC Champions League top scorer award, while he was also named as AFC Player of the Year. The individual accolades may not be enough for the 23-year-old, who spoke of his desire to have another go at the continental title with Al Hilal.
“We hope that next year we will do our best and try to get the AFC Champions League title for Al Hilal,” said Khrbin, after he was recognised as Asia’s best player.
While Khribin will be raring to kickstart another Asian campaign, it remains to be seen if he will be accompanied by his equally impressive strike partner Carlos Eduardo.
The Brazilian star had to be taken off in the first leg of the final against Urawa Red Diamonds, with scans showing later that he had sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury which will keep him out of Al Hilal’s early planning in 2018.
While Al Hilal may be on the lookout for new signings, their manager has expressed his hope of seeing Eduardo return.
"Without a doubt, Carlos Eduardo was an important player, and we lost him when he was at his peak,” said Diaz, speaking at a recent press conference. “We will wait for him to return to us with full strength."
Diaz has also been keen to deflect attention from Al Hilal’s Asian defeat and focus on continuing the team’s strong start to the domestic campaign.
"The AFC Champions League was one of our most important objectives. We faced a lot of issues in the final, including injuries, but all of this is now history."
"We may be sad about the final, especially after we had many chances in the first leg, but now we have to think about what is in our hands."
Al Hilal are currently top of the Saudi league table with an unbeaten record and a two-point lead over second-placed Al Ahli, who have played two games more.
The domestic form augurs well for Diaz’s side and they will now look to strengthen their position even further before launching a new campaign to conquer Asia on February 13, when they play their opening game in the 2018 AFC Champions League.