RIYADH: Al-Hilal took another big step towards a record 16th Saudi Professional League title on Tuesday thanks to two late goals that secured a 2-0 victory over Al-Faisaly.
The result preserves their six-point lead over closest rivals Al-Nassr, who later thrashed bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah 6-1.
It was, however, anything but a comfortable win for Al-Hilal, who had to dig deep into their energy reserves to collect three points that for long periods of the match looked to be just out of their reach.
After winning their first three matches since the SPL resumed following an unscheduled five-month break caused by the pandemic, Al-Hilal were beaten 2-1 by third-place Al-Ahli last week. The defeat perhaps sowed a few seeds of doubt among the players as the season approaches its conclusion.
Against a gallant Al-Faisaly side, who are sitting in fifth place in the league, it looked like another stumble might be on the cards, giving Al-Nassr the chance to cut the deficit at the top of the table to four or even three points, with three games left to play.
But salvation came for Al-Hilal from a familiar source, although they had to wait for it until the 82nd minute. They took the lead when top scorer Bafétimbi Gomis exchanged passes with Salem Al-Dawsari before finishing calmly with his left foot. It was no doubt as much of a relief for the Al-Hilal players as it was a bitter disappointment to the watching Al-Nassr fans.
The match was put to bed in the sixth minute of stoppage time when man of the match Salman Al-Faraj superbly skipped through the Al-Faisaly defense and slipped the ball to Syrian international Omar Khrbin, who tapped home the second.
It was a bittersweet night for Al-Hilal, as the club said farewell to beloved Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo, who is heading to Dubai’s Shabab Al-Ahli in the Arabian Gulf League. Unable to give him a proper send-off at King Saud University Stadium because games are being played behind closed doors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, his adoring fans instead inundated him on social media with messages of good luck. The playmaker leaves Al-Hilal having scored 74 SPL goals in five years.
Despite the disappointment of seeing their rivals secure such a late victory, Al-Nassr did what they had to later in the evening to keep their slim hopes alive, recording a resounding victory that almost certainly doomed their opponents to relegation.
Al-Adalah took a shock 13th-minute lead through Carolus Andriamatsinoro, but within three minutes Al-Nassr had not only equalized but taken the lead through strikes by last season’s SPL top-scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah and Giuliano de Paula respectively.
They had the match wrapped up before the break thanks to goals from Ahmed Musa on 28 minutes, Giuliano in the 43d, and Hamdallah four minutes into first-half stoppage time.
Having completed the job in the first half, the second half was little more than a procession for Al-Nassr. A sixth goal, from Abdul Aziz Al-Dawsari in the second minute of stoppage time, was simply the icing on the cake.
With three matches left, Al-Nassr know that despite this impressive win, time has all but run out in their pursuit of Al-Hilal for the SPL title.
In the rest of the day’s games in the 27th round of the SPL, Damac gave themselves a real chance of avoiding relegation with a stunning 2-1 win over third-place Al-Ahli at Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium. They are now third-bottom, just a point adrift of safety. Al-Wehda’s 2-1 victory over Al-Taawoun ensured they remain in fourth place.
Al-Hilal could wrap up the title on Saturday with a win against Al-Hazem at home, if Al-Nassr drop points against Al-Fayha on the same night.