Al-Hilal win Riyadh derby to edge closer to 16th title win

(SPA)
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Updated 06 August 2020

Al-Hilal win Riyadh derby to edge closer to 16th title win

  • In their first game after a five-month break because of the pandemic, the league leaders enjoyed a comfortable 4-1 victory over their closest rivals

RIYADH: Al-Hilal took a major step toward regaining the Saudi Professional League (SPL) on Wednesday as they secured a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Al-Nassr in a top-of-the-table clash at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.

The league leaders went into the Riyadh derby six points clear of their city rivals, knowing that a win would strike a decisive blow in the title race. A record 16th championship now looks inevitable, barring an unforeseen — and unlikely — collapse.

The SPL, like all other sporting events in the Kingdom, was put on hold on March 14 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The competition resumed on Tuesday with five matches, and Al-Hilal’s triumph the following night completed the season’s 23rd round of games. Seven matches are now all that separate Al-Hilal from another title. Games are being played behind closed doors, with no spectators.

Al-Nassr, who were unbeaten in four games against their opponents, started off on the front foot, adopting a high-pressure approach that seemed to be disrupting Al-Hilal’s build-up play. Nevertheless, it was Al-Hilal who broke the deadlock with a goal on 35 minutes, as Sebastian Giovinco delivered a firm finish after collecting Mohammed Al-Breik’s low cross.

With the last move of the half, however, Al-Nassr equalized through a fierce strike by Sultan Al-Ghanam. Goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf got a hand to the ball but could not prevent it crashing into the roof of the net.

Nine minutes after the break, Al-Hilal went ahead for a second time when Bafétimbi Gomis dispatched a penalty past Brad Jones, celebrating the goal in his unique, crawling style. This time, the lead would not be relinquished.

Five minutes later, Carlos Eduardo looked to have settled the match when he grabbed Al-Hilal’s third after some questionable defending.

Al-Nassr briefly improved after falling two behind, however, and on 66 minutes Nordin Amrabat was presented with a golden opportunity to cut the deficit in half after skipping through the Al-Hilal defense, only for his shot to be deflected wide for a corner.

With just over 10 minutes left, a superb cross by Salem Al-Dawsari was expertly dispatched by Gomis to put the result beyond any doubt and assure Al-Hilal of a nine-point lead in the SPL.

“After a long break you must come back strongly,” Al-Dawsari said. “We have high expectations, regardless of whether we had won or lost the match. As you saw today we achieved the win and we still have bigger ambitions to go for the title.”

Al-Dawsari played a part in two of the goals and stood out as one of the fittest-looking players after the lengthy hiatus.

“I’m a professional player and during the break I was expected to look after myself,” he said. “The league was not over. So you have to set your own fitness schedule.

“Yes, the break was long but our coaching staff were watching us and our training was ongoing throughout. After the long disruption we had a duty to entertain our fans, especially in a derby match. Today we put on a performance worthy of Al-Hilal. It’s sad to play big matches like this without fans but hopefully they will be back soon.”

Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi echoed these comments, praising his team-mates for their superior fitness and confidence.

“Our preparation meant we came back strongly after the break,” he said. “We were confident we would put on good performance and that showed in the result.”

He acknowledged, however, that a few defensive lapses could have cost the league leaders.

“We’ve been working recently on our defending,” he added. “If you notice, Al-Nassr’s few dangerous attacks came from our mistakes. Hopefully we can avoid that in the future.”

While Al-Bulaihi refused to be drawn on whether he believes the title is now all but secured, Al-Hilal fans will already be planning their celebrations after such a comprehensive victory over their closest challengers.

Earlier in the day, Al-Shabab enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 victory over fourth-placed Al-Wehda to end the day in seventh spot, while a first-half goal was enough to secure an away win for ninth-placed Ettifaq against bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah.
 


Al-Nassr on target for first Asian crown

Updated 28 September 2020

Al-Nassr on target for first Asian crown

  • The Riyadh giants defeated compatriots Al-Taawoun 1-0 on Sunday in the second round to be rewarded with another all-Saudi clash in the quarter-final
  • Now only Al-Ahli, who finished third in the SPL season, a full 14 points behind Al-Nassr, stand between Rui Vitoria’s men and a place in the last four

RIYADH: Al-Nassr may have missed out on the 2020 Saudi Pro League (SPL) title but they are now regarded as favorites to win a first continental crown after rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Sadd both fell by the wayside in the AFC Champions League.

The Riyadh giants defeated compatriots Al-Taawoun 1-0 on Sunday in the second round to be rewarded with another all-Saudi clash in the quarter-final. Now only Al-Ahli, who finished third in the SPL season, a full 14 points behind Al-Nassr, stand between Rui Vitoria’s men and a place in the last four.

“When you get to this stage of a major competition like this then you don’t mind who you play as every team is a strong one,” the Portuguese coach said.

“The game against Al-Taawoun was tough and the game against Al-Ahli will be tough. We will have to be at our best.”

Al-Nassr are looking strong at both ends of the field. Moroccan goal-machine Abderrazak Hamdallah finally broke the deadlock on Sunday evening with 15 minutes remaining, firing home a low shot from close range.

The striker, who won the 2019 SPL golden boot while propelling Al-Nassr to the title, has now equaled the tournament record set by Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk, of scoring in nine consecutive Champions League appearances.

“We know that if he gets a chance then he will score. Whether the chance comes in the first or last minute, it doesn’t matter but, of course, this is a team effort,” added Vitoria.

As clinical as Al-Nassr are in front of goal, they are solid at the back, conceding just two goals in the five games that have taken place since the tournament restarted in mid-September.

Both Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli won their respective groups but the Jeddah club did not look as convincing as their Riyadh rivals, losing two of the four games they had to play after Al-Wahda of Abu Dhabi had to withdraw over positive test results at the club for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The second-round win over Shabab Al-Ahli was as tight as could be as the Saudi team triumphed in a penalty shootout over the Dubai club after the game had finished 1-1.

“We had no preference as to whether we would play Al-Nassr or Al-Taawoun,” said Al-Ahli coach Vladan Milojevic on Monday. “It is exciting to play another team from the same country in the quarter-final. We know each other well and it will be good for the fans too. Any team at this stage is strong.”

Should Al-Nassr progress, the semi-final should hold no fears. Defending Asian champions Al-Hilal were regarded as the favorites from the West Zone (the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final) but after topping their group, the title-holders were forced to withdraw by the Asian Football Confederation last Wednesday after the squad was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak.

While much of Asia sympathized with Al-Hilal, the absence of the current Asian and Saudi Arabian champions will not be mourned too much at Al-Nassr.

On Sunday, another strong favorite was eliminated. Al-Sadd of Qatar are coached by former Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi and boast former Arsenal striker Santi Cazorla, South Korean internationals Nam Tae-hee and Jung Woo-yung and a number of Qatar’s 2019 Asian Cup-winning squad in their ranks. The 2011 champions, who finished just behind Al-Nassr in the group stage, were expected to go far.

Instead, they lost 1-0 to Persepolis. The Iranians will take on Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan, who defeated Esteghlal 2-1, another team from Tehran, in the other quarter final. Both teams have plenty of Asian experience and knowhow but neither have the star power of Al-Hilal and Al-Sadd.

Should Al-Nassr get to the final then they will face what could be a very tired East Asian opponent. The group stage resumes in mid-November on the opposite side of the continent and that means teams from Japan, China, Australia, or South Korea would arrive for the final after playing as many as nine games in the space on the back of domestic commitments.

The route to a first Asian crown for Al-Nassr is looking clearer than it has ever done though Al-Ahli will have something to say about that on Wednesday.