RIYADH: The standings after the penultimate round of games in the 2019-20 Saudi Professional League season had set the scene for high drama on the final day of this marathon, disrupted campaign — and the action on Wednesday delivered this in spades.
Struggling giants Al-Ittihad avoided the nightmare prospect of relegation, while their Jeddah neighbors Al-Ahli took third place in the league to secure qualification for next season’s AFC Champions League. They join the Riyadh duo of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, who had already claimed first and second spots in the SPL respectively.
Al-Ahli clinched a narrow 2-1 victory over Al-Raed, who themselves were clinging to hopes of making it into Asia’s premier club competition. However, second-half goals from Salman Al-Moasher and Syrian superstar Omar Al-Somah ended that dream and ensured Al-Ahli will approach the delayed conclusion of this year’s Champions League, which resumes on Sep. 14, in a relaxed frame of mind, secure in the knowledge that they have claimed their place in next year’s event.
The real drama, however, played out at the bottom of the table, where five clubs kicked off their final matches in danger of joining already-doomed Al-Adalah and Al-Hazem in relegation.
In the final game of what has been a nervy end to a dismal season, Al-Ittihad managed to preserve their top-flight status in relative comfort, thanks to a 2-0 away victory over bottom-placed Al-Adalah. Goals from Fahad Al-Muwallad on 11 minutes and Wilfried Bony, with a penalty just before the half-hour mark, dispelled any lingering tension.
In an astonishing match that included four penalties, Damac, who began the day in the bottom three, defeated Al-Fateh 4-3 to leapfrog them into 11th place and ensure SPL survival, although their fans must have been biting their nails in the dying seconds of the match.
Everything appeared to be going to plan for Damac, as they took a ninth-minute through an Emilio Zelaya penalty and then Ibrahim Chenihi doubled their lead on 44 minutes. However, Mohammed Naji halved the deficit deep into first-half injury time, setting up one of the most dramatic 45 minutes of the season.
Al-Fateh’s Dutch marksman Mitchell te Vrede leveled the scores with a penalty after 58 minutes. With the match between Al-Taawoun and Al-Fayah match still scoreless at this point, Damac were heading for the drop as things stood.
They hit back, however, and regained the lead when Zelaya converted a second penalty that looked to put them on course for a priceless win and SPL safety. This match had a few more twists to offer, however, and with only six minutes left te Vrede scored his second penalty of the night. With the score at 3-3, Damac found themselves back in deep relegation trouble.
Redemption, and the guarantee of another season in the SPL, came for Damac in the final two minutes of the season, as Abdullah Al-Jouei scored what will surely go down as one of the club’s most famous goals.
Meanwhile, the match between Al-Taawoun and Al-Fayha headed into stoppage time scoreless, with the latter needing a very late goal to escape the drop and, in the process, condemn their opponents to relegation. It was not to be, however, as it was Al-Taawoun who grabbed a winner in the 92nd minute, courtesy of Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, sealing their opponents’ fate.
Champions Al-Hilal ended their season — in which they claimed a record 16th SPL title — in style with a 2-1 win over Al-Shabab at King Saud University Stadium. French forward Bafétimbi Gomis signed off on a prolific campaign with a goal in each half. Cristian Guanca’s reply was sandwiched in between. Al-Shabab finished the season in seventh spot.
The celebrations continued late into the night after the Prince Mohammed bin Salman trophy was presented to a delighted Al-Hilal squad and their coach, Razvan Lucescu, amid fireworks and selfies. The reigning champions of Asia will now turn their attention toward retaining their continental crown in the coming months.
In the other matches, Al-Wehda claimed fourth place in the league with a 2-0 victory over Al-Hazem, with goals from Youssef Niakate and Luis Gustavo.
Al-Faisaly took fifth spot with a 2-1 win over Abha at Al-Majmaah Sports City. Goals in each half by William Alves de Oliveira and Raphael da Silva Arruda were enough to see them through against their visitors, who responded with a consolation goal in the form of Karim Aouadhi’s 70th-minute penalty. Abha ended the season in ninth spot.
SPL runners-up — and last season’s champions — Al-Nassr overcame Al-Ettifaq 3-2 in an encounter that had little riding on it other than pride.
Abderrazak Hamdallah gave Al-Nassr the lead with a seventh-minute penalty — and claimed the SPL’s top-scorer crown for the second season running — before Saleh Al-Amri squared the match 12 minutes later. Giuliano de Paula’s effort just before half-time followed by Abdulfattah Mohammed Adam’s goal in the 72nd minute all but ended the contest, with Hazzaa Al-Hazzaa’s stoppage-time strike little more than a consolation for Al-Ettifaq, who finished the campaign in eighth place.