Ighalo Loses Coach, Gets Argentine Replacement Wole Opatola

Al-Hilal fired head coach Leonardo Jardim on Monday, just 48 hours after the Saudi champions lost 4-0 to Al-Ahly of Egypt in the FIFA Club World Cup, with Argentine Ramon Diaz returning to the club for a second spell.

Jardim was appointed on a one-year contract in June 2021 and despite leading the Riyadh giants to a record fourth AFC Champions League title in November with a 2-0 final win over Pohang Steelers of South Korea, as well as the Saudi Super Cup in January, the Portuguese boss received his marching orders.

Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the African champions was the final straw amid concerns over Al-Hilal’s domestic form. It was a chaotic performance with three goals conceded and two men sent off just inside the first half.

The former Monaco manager, who led that team to the French title in 2017 to become one of the most in-demand coaches in Europe, has paid the price ultimately for indifferent league form. At the time of the 47-year-old’s dismissal, the 17-time champions are in fourth place in the Saudi Professional League, with 31 points from 17 games. The gap behind leaders Al-Ittihad is 16 points, a deficit so huge that Al-Hilal’s two games in hand are looking increasingly insignificant.

Any hint that the powerhouse are not going to challenge for the title is always dangerous for any Al-Hilal coach and there has been growing criticism of the team’s performances and results. There was a feeling that Al-Hilal was less than the sum of its parts and won games and points thanks to the brilliance of its attacking stars rather than any fluid team play or solid structure.

There had been a view in the club that Jardim should be given Thursday’s league game against second-placed Al-Shabab and then the King’s Cup final against Al-Nassr four days after that to save his job.

Yet the opinion that it was better to make a change sooner rather than later won out, helped by the chaos of the first half performance against Al-Ahly, when Jardim had made a number of changes to the team’s starting lineup and formation.

It was a humiliation. It may have only been the third and fourth place playoff but it was a meeting between what many would say are the two biggest clubs in the Arab world, or at least the most successful Arab clubs from Africa and Asia. And, not only that, but no Saudi team has ever finished higher than fourth in the tournament and Al-Hilal had a chance to make history.

A number of foreign coaches were considered as a replacement including former national team boss Juan Antonio Pizzi — just one name on the list.
In the end, Pizzi’s fellow Argentine Ramon Diaz will succeed Jardim on what is a contract until the end of the season, with the option of an extension.

The Argentine took charge of Al-Hilal from October 2016 to February 2018, winning the league and getting to the final of the 2017 AFC Champions League, losing narrowly to Urawa Reds of Japan.

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