DUBAI: Leaders Al-Hilal edged closer to a record 16th Saudi Professional League title after a comfortable 4-0 win over Al-Adalah left them needing two more wins to ensure they cannot be caught by closest challengers and reigning champions Al-Nassr.
The Riyadh club hardly need any help in their seemingly unstoppable march towards yet another championship, but the fixture list had for good measure thrown up a visit to the team anchored at the bottom of the SPL table in round 25 of the disrupted campaign.
Romanian coach Răzvan Lucescu’s team had all but settled this season’s title race after beating Al-Nassr 4-1 in the first match after the enforced break due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This proved another procession.
Despite facing a surprisingly high press by Al-Adalah’s forward line, Al-Hilal quickly settled into their rhythm with Govinco pulling the strings in the middle of the park while Salem Al-Dawsari worked tirelessly down the right channel. And it was the Saudi international who set up the opening goal for Al-Hilal when his low cross was side-footed by Bafétimbi Gomis on the half hour. It was the Frenchman’s 19th league goal of the season, taking him level with Abderrazak Hamdallah of Al-Nassr at the top of the scoring charts.
The same player should have doubled the lead on 58 minutes when Al-Adalah goalkeeper Ali Al-Mazidi was caught outside his penalty area, but Gomis’s clipped shot just missed the open goal.
Two minutes later Naif Hazazi should have levelled the match after being set up by the on-loan Malian winger Adama Traore, but his right-footed shot missed the target from close range. On 72 minutes Traore himself came within inches of an equaliser when his stunning left footed shot struck Abdullah Al-Mayouf’s right-hand post.
A minute later Syrian international Omar Khrbin replaced Govinco, and almost immediately Gomis doubled Al-Hilal’s lead, tapping in another precise Al-Dawsari cross, this time from the right.
Al-Dawsari sealed his man-of-the-match performance with a sensational solo goal with 11 minutes left, dancing through the Al Adalah defence before curling the ball past Al Mazidi.
There was still time for Khrbin to make it 4-0 from the penalty spot after Saleh Al-Shehri was fouled in stoppage time by Radhi Al-Radhi, who received a red card for his troubles.
“It was an important win on the way to hopefully winning the league,” said the substitute Khrbin. “Another two or three matches and we can wrap up the title, but the most important thing today was the three points.”
The striker believes that the substitutions helped settle the match in Al-Hilal’s favours while restricting any potential for exhaustion.
“The coach has picked the right team for each match, and the players have always performed in the right spirit,” he said. “Today perhaps there was a conservation of effort, and it was very important that we scored that first goal. It made the match more straight forward.”
Mohammed Jahfali, returning to Al-Hilal’s defence, agreed that the coach’s selection exploited the depth of the squad.
“In terms of rotation, that is normal especially after the long break,” he said. “It’s impossible to play with the same 11 all the time because of the weather and tiredness. Our squad complement each other, and everyone is ready to step in.”
He would not comment on the destination of the SPL title, saying that as things stand, Al-Hilal cannot assume “one percent” that it’s already won.
Al-Adalah defender Bader Al-Nakhli thought the result did not reflect how his team played and backed his coach's decision to play the high press, rather than sit back and try to hit Al-Hilal on the counterattack.
“It’s harsh defeat,” he said. “We tried our best in the first half, we tried to contain them for as long as we could.”
“I think the coach had the right idea, the tactics were right and we closed them down,” Al-Nakhli said. “Yes, the high pressing game can be tiring, but after they scored the first goal the match became more open, especially in the second half. Now we have to play the last five matches as if they’re a separate tournament. We have to try and win every match so we can stay up.”
Al-Adalah are now on 20 points almost certainties for relegation, but Hazazi refused to make any excuses for the defeat.
“We didn’t expect to lose by four to be honest, the midfielder said. “From the start the team matched Al-Hilal, a team who are going for the league title and could be crowned in the next match or two. We managed to match a team like that until about the 65th minute, but mistakes happened, but we can’t blame anyone specifically.”
“We carried out the press from the start,” Hazazi added. “But we have to be honest, in this match we had nothing to lose. We have the capabilities to score, we had some chances that had we scored would have changed the match. But then all the substitutions probably didn’t help us, Al Hilal are a very big team.”
In the day’s other matches, relegation-threatened Damac recorded a valuable 2-0 win at Al-Taawoun, while Al-Faislay closed the gap on Al-Ahli in third place to two points with another 2-0 win.
For Al-Hilal, the title edges nearer by the match.