The first Riyadh derby of the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League season went the way of the reigning champions, as Al-Hilal overcame last season’s runners-up, Al-Nassr, 2-0 at King Saud University Stadium.
The result highlighted the contrasting starts by the two clubs to the new campaign. Al-Hilal started the match joint top of the table with Al-Shabab, on 10 points. Al-Nassr, on the other hand, have endured a nightmare start to the season. After three losses and only one win, they started the day in lowly 13th position on only three points.
The match was given some added spice by the fact that the fierce rivals will meet again on Saturday in the delayed final of the 2019-20 King’s Cup.
Despite their plight, Al-Nassr started the brighter of the teams, with the home side strangely wasteful in possession. However, the first real chance of the half fell to Al-Hilal on 15 minutes. Bafetimbi Gomis exchanged passes with Sebastian Giovinco, only to side-foot the ball wide from an inviting position.
Al-Nassr hit back on 28 minutes when the excellent Sultan Al-Ghanam’s stinging shot was saved by Habib Al-Wotayan, as the visitors continued to frequently threaten the champions. Neither club showed anywhere near enough of a cutting edge to break the first-half deadlock, however.
At half-time, Abderrazak Hamdallah — the league’s top scorer for the past two seasons, and with four goals in Riyadh derbies to his name — replaced Khalid Al-Ghannam in an attempt to bolster Al-Nassr’s attack.
It was the home team that got the first big break of the second period, however, when a penalty was awarded on 56 minutes for a foul on Al-Hilal’s Argentinian forward, Luciano Vietto.
Gomis stepped up to calmly, in his inimitable style, to put the spot kick past Brad Jones and give Razvan Lucescu’s team a lead they would not relinquish.
Just after the hour, Al-Nassr coach Rui Vitoria responded by throwing on Moroccan star Nordin Amrabat for Abdullah Al-Khaibari and Ali Al-Hassan for Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhem.
The double substitution looked to have paid dividends within a few minutes as Pity Martinez’s hanging cross was tapped on by Ayman Yahya for Amrabat to finish from close range. But after the video assistant referee was consulted, the goal was disallowed for an earlier offside.
With 10 minutes left, Al-Hilal brought on Syrian international Omar Kharbin in the hope of settling the match, while Al-Nassr went for broke at the other end.
With eight minutes of stoppage time added, the match remained on knife edge until, with seconds left, Gomis put Saleh Al-Shehri through on goal and the Saudi international finished with style to put the result beyond doubt.
Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi was glad to get a tough match out of the way before the two teams meet again in the cup final next weekend.
“The match was not easy and we dedicate it to our coach, who set up the team for this win,” he said. “We are 10 points clear and we can put aside the league for a while now as we concentrate on the King’s Cup final. Of course, the win gives us a big push in the final.”
He dedicated the clean sheet to absent goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, and added: “The coach had told us not to force things, that the goal could come at any time. That’s exactly what happened. We were not in a hurry and, more importantly, we didn’t concede either.”
The man who replaced Al-Mayouf in goal, Al-Motayan, was pleased to keep a clean sheet in his first derby, and thanked his teammates for their solid defensive performance.
“I found out I was playing one day before the match but we prepared for Al-Nassr like every other opponent — the most important thing was getting the three points,” he said. “My colleagues helped men a lot during the match and I can say I had complete support from the players, coaches and board.”
Vitoria was happy with his team’s performance but not with the manner of the defeat, revealing that Hamdallah and Amrabat were not fit to play the whole match after the international break.
“We can’t have players play if they are not completely ready to play the whole 90 — maybe 45 is ok. This is football,” he said.
“In the first half we played a good game, tactically. My team did not allow any chances for the opposition. We had seven shots, they had two. In the second half we were better — and, in fact, in the whole match we were better. But some of the details, like the penalty, made the difference.
“They had more possession in the first half but we allowed that. No, I’m not satisfied because we did not win. We fought and played well. The result is one thing and the performance is another.”
Vitoria disputed whether his side’s disallowed goal was truly offside, and revealed he had words with the referee after the final whistle, in a very calm and respectful manner.
“We have a final in five days and we will be back,” he added.
Earlier in the day, Al-Raed beat Abha Club 2-1, thanks to goals from Ahmed Zain and Mohammed Fouzair. Al-Ain won 2-0 away to Damac, with Faisel Al-Jamaan and Saphir Taider doing the damage either side of half time.
The other three matches of match day five ended in ties. Al-Qadisiyah and Al-Batin shared four goals, Al-Faisaly and Al-Ittihad drew 1-1, and Al-Shabab’s 2-2 draw at Al-Ahli kept them in second place in the league.