DUBAI: A semblance of life was breathed into the Saudi Professional League (SPL) title race when runaway leaders Al Hilal were last night beaten 2-1 by Al Ahli, whose win ensured that second placed Al Nassr, are now only six points off the top with four matches left.
In the three rounds since the restart of the league after the break enforced by the coronavirus crisis, Al Hilal had claimed three straight wins as they looked to wrap up record 16th title in double quick time.
They started the day nine points clear, but Al Nassr cut the deficit to six with a comfortable 4-1 win at Al Taawoun. It meant the Riyadh club needed a win to stretch the leaf again. It was not to be, as Al Ahli, inspired by Omar Al Somah, handed their Jeddah rivals the most welcome, and perhaps unexpected, of gifts.
The Syrian international gave a youthful Al Ahli team the lead after only five minutes, volleying home after his initial effort had been blocked by Abdullah Al Mayouf in Al Hilal goal.
Parity was restored in the 62 minutes when Ali Al Bulaihi side footed from Al Hilal substitute Mohammed Al Breik’s low cross, but Al Ahli retook the lead 12 minutes later through Abdulfattah Asiri brilliant diving header after a fine move initiated by Al Somah.
Al Ahli boss Vladan Milojević was mobbed by his staff as the final whistle went while his gleeful players celebrated on the pitch. For Al Hilal, nerves may start to creep in, though matches are running out fast for their challengers Al Nassr.
The win sees Al Ahli strengthen their grip on third place with Al Wehda in hot pursuit three points behind.
Al Hilal’s French forward Bafétimbi Gomis, who has been in red hot form since the restart, had a difficult night and looked to be struggling in the stifling heat, prompting fans to call in and send messages to the television stations to check on his health.
“I am fine. At some point I felt the heat, but thankfully I managed to finish the match,” he said. “I want to thank all the fans who called in to check up on me.”
“The teams at the top will have days like these when they face difficulties,” he added. “You can’t become champions if you don’t go through these moments. If you remember recently, Juventus went through a difficult time on the way to the title win with a few draws and some dropped points. We were not at our best, but credit to Al Ahli who played well and scored two goals. At the same time the two goals were avoidable, as they came from our mistakes rather than from an obvious superiority over us.”
Al Ahli Bosnian midfielder Elvis Saric, one of the match’s standout performers, revealed he was more than happy to curb his attacking instincts to maintain his team’s defensive shape, in particular keeping a close watch on Al Hilal playmaker Sebastian Giovinco.
“It was a very difficult game as we were playing against the leaders,” he said. “For me it was no problem, I can play in midfield number 6 or number 8. It’s not a problem, the coach will decide every game where I play
He also praised Al Ahli’s younger players who showed maturity and endurance in difficult conditions.
“For sure we have some very good young players and it’s a very good opportunity for them to play against teams like Al Hilal, like Al Nassr,” Saric added. “I think they are playing very well, they’re training very well, and they listen to everything that the coach says to them. I have no problem with the young players, they need to play. In football it’s not a problem who is old and who is young, only who can play. Of course you need experience. You couldn’t play with 11 young players or you couldn’t play with 11 old players. You need to have balance in the team and I think that we have very good balance in the team and we will be better and better in every round.”
One of those young players, Ali Al Asmari, said that despite Al Hilal having the majority of possession (69 percent), Al Ahli’s determination ensured that they were never overawed.
“Al Hilal is a big team and they always like to have the majority of the play, whether in their own half or the opposition half,” he said. “Having the confidence in ourselves is what allows us to overcome the challenges that face the players, whether they are young or old. The experienced players supported us throughout the match and hopefully we can get better in the future.”
“A lot of people predicted Al Hilal will win with a big margin but we’ve been feeling optimistic over the last two days, and thankfully we got the three points,” Al Asmari added. “Al Hilal is a big club, and Al Hilal is a big club, and big matches like that are not decided by big scores.”
In the day’s other matches bottom of the table Al Adalah lost 4-2 at home to Al Wehda, while AL Fayha and damar played out a 0-0 draw.
Next up for Al Hilal on Monday is a home game against Al Faisaly, while Al Nassr will be expected to keep the pressure on with a win against Al Adalah later that night.