After valiant loss to Real Madrid in glamour final, Al Hilal must now get back to the grind if they want to return to FIFA Club World Cup

Moussa Marega celebrates scoring the second goal in Al Hilal's 2-0 win over Pohang Steelers in the AFC Champions League 2021 final. Victor Fraile / Power Sport Images for The AFC

Under the bright lights of an international showpiece event, Al Hilal did not disappoint on Saturday evening.

Having impressively seen off Wydad Casablanca and Flamengo previously, the Saudi Pro League outfit headed into the FIFA Club World Cup final as massive underdogs against the mighty Real Madrid.

And while the decider ultimately ended in defeat for Al Hilal, they hardly lost any pride as they played their part in a thrilling 5-3 spectacle that saw Real win a record-extending fifth Club World Cup.

Over the course of the past week or so, Al Hilal have given an excellent account of themselves -- one that reflects well on them as the most successful club in Saudi Arabia, as well as the current champions of Asia following their AFC Champions League triumph in 2021.

Yet, as they bid farewell to the glitz and glamour of the Club World Cup, Al Hilal must now get down to business if they are to have any aspirations of gracing the stage once again in the near future.

To qualify for the next edition of the Club World Cup -- and for a third consecutive tournament -- Al Hilal will have to successfully defend their ACL crown, with the West Zone knockout round starting on Feb. 19.

Al Hilal remain one of the favourites to emerge as the best in the west and go on to take on East Zone finalists Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in the two-legged decider later in the year.

Nonetheless, if the group stage is anything to go by, it will not necessary be plain sailing for them with compatriots Al Shabab and Qatari giants Al Duhail also emerging as serious contenders.

When it comes to a knockout format over single ties, as is the case from the round of 16 to the semifinals of this edition of the ACL, upsets are always just around the corner -- Al Hilal will be aware of that firsthand given they were the ones pulling off the surprises at the Club World Cup.

Perhaps more important in the long run than finding themselves at the Club World Cup once every few years is to be regularly winning their domestic competition and featuring in Asia's premier club competition on an annual basis.

Al Hilal usually do not have any problems with that having featured in the last 14 editions of the ACL, with their last absence all the way back in 2008.

But they are facing a far tougher task on their hands this season.

At the halfway mark of their league campaign, Al Hilal are currently fourth on the table -- five points behind leading trio Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Shabab with a game in hand on the former two, and two on the latter.

Bearing in mind that Al Nassr have only gotten stronger over the past few weeks with the arrival of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a staggering four goals in his last outing, there is a real chance that Al Hilal's quest for a fourth consecutive league title may not prove successful in 2022-23.

Of course, there will be no immediate repercussions even if Al Hilal fail to retain their crown this term.

With the ACL currently transitioning from a February-to-November calendar to a September-to-May schedule, Al Hilal will grace next season's ACL by virtue of being the 2021-22 SPL champions.

Nonetheless, while playing on the big stage that is the Club World Cup may be the icing on the cake, winning their domestic league and challenging for the ACL year after year remains the bread and butter for Al Hilal.

Which is why that now the high of taking on the likes of Real Madrid and Flamengo is over, Al Hilal have to get back to business and return to the grind to ensure the rest of their campaign is a success.