Al Hilal keep up AFC Champions League charge but are they equipped to go far without Neymar?

Al Hilal remain firmly on course to reach the knockout stage of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League as they sit joint-top of Group D following a 6-0 rout of Mumbai City on Monday evening. Asian Football Confederation

In their first continental outing since star forward Neymar suffered a serious anterior cruciate ligament tear while on international duty with Brazil, Al Hilal showed no signs of sorely missing their prized asset.

It was never going to be the toughest of tests in Monday's AFC Champions League tie against India's Mumbai City, but the Saudi Pro League giants still issued a statement of intent as they recorded an emphatic 6-0 win.

The result put them level with Navbahor at the top of Group D on seven points and -- after starting their campaign with an unconvincing 1-1 draw against the joint-leaders -- Al Hilal are now well and truly back on course for a place in the knockout round -- although there is still much work to be done.

As the most-decorated club in Saudi Arabian football with 18 league titles to their names, domestic success was never the top priority behind Al Hilal's busy summer that saw them land Neymar among a host of other stellar players.

That would have been on the agenda, especially after they relinquished the SPL crown for the first time in four years last season as Al Ittihad were crowned champions.

But continental glory is likely to have been the bigger motivation.

Already the ACL's record four-time champions, Al Hilal would have been hurting to make up for last season's narrow final loss to Urawa Red Diamonds -- a team they should have comfortably seen off on paper.

Nonetheless, with Neymar now sidelined for the foreseeable future and potentially even the rest of the season, how far can Al Hilal go in Asia?

Getting out of the first stage should be a given, even if the situation is slightly complicated by the fact that only the group winners are guaranteed a place in the last 16, with the three best-ranking runner-ups in the West Asia Zone also progressing.

Al Hilal will also be aware that a shock early elimination is never out of the equation, having suffered such ignominy as recently as in 2018 when they stunningly finished bottom of their group.

Yet, as they displayed against a hapless Mumbai City on Monday, they certainly have the necessary firepower to progress as long as they perform as expected -- even without Neymar.

In the absence of the Brazilian, it was another recognisable name in Aleksandar Mitrovic who led the way with a hat-trick, while former Lazio midfield lynchpin Sergei Milinkovic-Savic also got on the scoresheet.

Other famous faces involved in the rout included Rúben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Malcom, while it is also worth noting that even before the influx of all these superstars, Al Hilal were already a force to be reckoned with on the continental stage given their myriad of Saudi Arabia internationals.

The likes of Salem Al-Dawsari, Mohammed Al-Breik and Saud Abdulhamid -- who all featured in the 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign which saw the Green Falcons stun eventual champions Argentina -- continue to feature prominently, and are good enough to lead Al Hilal's charge on their own merit.

Where Al Hilal could eventually come unstuck though is when they get to the latter stages of the competition.

For the simple fact that they are not the team from the Saudi Pro League to have gone on a recruiting overdrive a few months ago.

Al Nassr boast the formidable strike duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mané ably supported by Aymeric Laporte, Marcelo Brozovic and Alex Telles, while Al Ittihad now boasts Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kanté in their ranks.

For as long as they are kept apart from their compatriots, Al Hilal should go into every game in the ACL as strong favourites.

Come the final stages of the tournament when they inevitably will renew rivalries with familiar foes, that is perhaps when they need each and every member of their strongest XI out on the field.

And that could just be when the absence of Neymar will prove telling in their quest to become champions of Asia for a fifth time.