Al-Hilal fans could breathe easier after their side’s 4-1 win over Al-Fateh, a victory that ensured they finished just one point ahead of Jeddah rivals Al-Ahli in a nail-biting finish to an exciting campaign.
Here we take a look back over the season and come up with five reasons why the Riyadh giants won title No. 15.
As Omar Khribin showed with a brilliant hat-trick on Thursday, strikers win games. But it is defenses that win titles. Al-Hilal had the best backline and conceded fewer goals than anyone else. Just four times all season did the capital club concede more than one goal in a match. Osama Hawsawi (who announced he was leaving after the game) and Mohammed Jahfali developed a fine partnership, while Yasser Al-Shahrani and Mohammed Al-Hafith are an underrated pair of full backs. Throw in experienced goalkeepers Abdullah Al-Maiouf and Ali Al-Habsi and it is clear to see why opposition attacks found breaking Al-Hilal down a tough task.
It may seem strange to praise a manager who got his marching orders midway through the season, but there is little doubt that without the Argentine in the dugout Al-Hilal fans would not be celebrating right now. Diaz was sacked after defeat to Esteghlal in the AFC Champions League. The Asian campaign was disappointing, but domestically all was fine and Al-Hilal were on a nine-game unbeaten run in the league at the time he departed. Diaz had won 30 out of 41 games and had the team well organized and disciplined. Assistant Juan Brown stepped in for the final five games of the season and deserved praise for getting the team over the line — but the hard work had already been done.
STRENGTH IN DEPTH
Champions normally have at least one striker at or near the top of the goalscoring charts. Not so this season with Al-Hilal. If you scan the top 15 scorers in the league, you will not find one player from the Riyadh giants. Injuries to Carlos Eduardo and Omar Khribin, the side’s usual go-to pair for goals, should have put paid to their side’s title chances. But in their absence the rest of the team stepped up. The defense chipped in with seven goals, the midfield did its bit and while new attacking signings such as Gelmin Rivas, Ezequiel Cerutti and Achraf Bencharki did not exactly set the place alight, they contributed just enough to keep the points column ticking over.
It is inevitable that those who score the goals get the headlines, but Otayf was the man who made Al-Hilal tick. He is the kind of player every title-winning team needs — an unassuming get-to-it and do-the-job midfielder. Underrated he did the simple things very well, worked hard to get possession, kept it and then gave it to those with a nose for goal. He loves to pull the strings from deep and has did so time and time again this season.
EARLY ADVANTAGE OVER AL-AHLI
Usually it is hard to point to one game over the course of a long season and say that it the key moment of the campaign. Not so this time. With just a point separating Al-Hilal and Al Ahli by the season’s final whistle, it is clear the meetings between them were crucial. While last week’s clash ended 0-0, the first meeting back in December saw Al-Hilal claim victory with a 2-0 win. Salem Al-Dawsari, now on loan at Villarreal in Spain, bagged both goals in the second half to give the Boss the advantage in the title race. It was one they did not relinquish.