DUBAI:The battle to avoid relegation at the bottom of the Saudi Professional League (SPL) is heating up after the start of the 26th round of the campaign left five clubs separated by only four points while Al Adalah, who did not play, remain rooted at the bottom a further four points adrift.
Since the resumption of domestic football in the Kingdom after the enforced break due to the coronavirus crisis, one of the SPL’s most fascinating sub-plots has been whether struggling giants Al Ittihad will continue to spiral into the relegation zone. A point yesterday after a 1-1 draw away to Al Faisaly will hardly have eased the tension significantly, as they remain 12th in the 16-team league but only one point ahead of Al Fateh in the last relegation spot. Al Ittihad are now also on the same number of points, 27, as Al Hazem, who are occupying the relegation playoff spot.
Having lost their first two matches after the SPL’s restart to Abha Club and Al Ahli, Al Ittihad seemed to have arrested the slide with a 1-0 win against Al Ettifaq last week, but last night’s draw will have brought all the old anxieties back.
It was Al Faisaly, riding high in fourth position, who took the lead just before half time thanks to Youssef El Jebel’s penalty, with the Jeddah club striking back on 66 minutes through Hamdan Al Shamrani.
The result leaves Al Faisaly only one point behind Al Ahli in third and final AFC Champions League position. While Al Ahli now have a game in hand, it happens to be tonight’s clash with leaders Al Hilal, who seem determined to wrap up the league title as quickly as possible. Hope remains for Al Faislay.
Al Ittihad, for their part, will now be looking nervously towards Monday night’s relegation clash with Al Fayha, who are currently only a point better off in 11th place, but who crucially have a seemingly winnable game tonight against second from bottom Damac.
In the other matches played last night, Al Fateh drew 1-1 with Al Ettifaq at Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium, while Al Hazem gave themselves a great chance of beating the drop with a priceless 2-0 win at Abha.
In the day’s final match Al Raed overturned a one-goal first-half deficit to beat Al Shabab 2-1 at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium to leapfrog Al Wehda into fifth position.
The conclusion of round 26 will tonight see bottom of the league Al Adalah welcome Al Wehda, Al Fayha’s home match with Damac and reigning champions Al Nassr’s trip to Al Taawoun.
But all eyes will once again be on Al Hilal as they take on third-placed Al Ahli in Jeddah in the knowledge that two more wins out of five should seem them confirm a record 16th Saudi league championship. It seems like it’s only a matter of time for Riyadh's finest.