RIYADH: The Saudi Professional League title looks to be heading in a familiar direction after Al-Hilal took a huge step towards a record 17th championship on Friday night by beating Al-Shabab 5-1 in Riyadh.
The two teams started their top of the table clash level on points but now, with four games remaining, the defending champions are three points clear with a hugely superior goal difference. There is still plenty to play for, but if Al-Hilal lift that trophy they will look back at the few minutes at the end of the first half as a turning point.
As the clock reached the 45minute mark, Al-Hilal were 2-1 up in what was an entertaining end-to-end clash, but two incidents in stoppage time changed the course of the match.
First, Al-Shabab’s Argentine playmaker Ever Banega received a second yellow card to reduce the hosts to 10 men, and then moments later Al-Hilal’s Argentine star Luciano Vietto scored with a delightful chip to make it 3-1. There was no coming back from that. Al-Shabab had their moments in the second half but were caught out by the leaders to receive what can only be described as a thrashing.
Al-Shabab coach Carlos Inarejos was left lamenting Banega’s red card.
“The match was finely balanced and both teams were creating opportunities to score but Banega’s dismissal made it difficult for us,” said the Spaniard. “We have to remember that Al-Hilal have been playing in the AFC Champions League while we have not had a competitive game for 27 days, and that period affected us.”
The win will be celebrated by new Al-Hilal coach Jose Morais, even if the Portuguese boss, appointed last week to replace Rogerio Micale, was not on the sidelines. Jose Mourinho’s former assistant is still in quarantine after arriving in Riyadh, leaving coach Abdullatif Al-Husseini in charge on the pitch.
Al-Hilal’s one-man advantage in the second half meant that they did not have to worry about fatigue after the hectic schedule of six games in two weeks.
“I am pleased with our performance,” Al-Husseini said. “Banega’s dismissal did make it easier for us but we were superior from the start, I thought.”
Al-Husseini, who revealed he had consulted closely with Morais on video, said that he understood the fans’ feelings after the disappointing performances in the Champions League.
“We know we can do better and the players had a strong desire to win and to show the fans what they are made of, and they did that from the first minute,” he said.
Al-Hilal’s star striker Bafetimbi Gomis opened the scoring after three minutes with a fine header from a corner, though almost instantly Fabio Martins swept home from the edge of the area to make it 1-1. Midway through the first half, Hassan Tambakti handled in the area and Gomis made no mistake from the spot to become the first foreign player to score 100 goals in all competitions for Al-Hilal in just 126 games for the club.
Ten minutes before the break, Al-Shabab had the chance to level the scoreline but striker Christian Guanca chose to pass when through on goal and Al-Hilal snuffed the danger out. Soon after, Banega was dismissed and Vietto scored and the contest was virtually over.
“The referee killed the game but I don’t want to talk about that,” said Odion Ighalo, Al-Shabab’s striker, who arrived in January from Manchester United. “We played well in the first half but when you play with 10 men against a team like Al-Hilal, then you are going to find it very difficult. There is still a lot to play for, however.”
Next Friday, the two teams are in action again with Al-Shabab going to Al-Ettifaq and Al-Hilal hosting Al-Batin.
Coach Inarejos is still optimistic about Al-Shabab’s chances of winning their first championship since 2012, which would be their seventh overall.
“The league is not over yet,” he said. “There are four matches remaining, and we still have a chance of winning the title. We will bounce back from this.”
But the ball is now in Al-Hilal’s court.
“I told the players in the dressing room that nothing has been decided yet in terms of the title but we are delighted with the result and the performance,” said Al-Husseini. “From now though, every game is like a final for us.”