Al-Nassr and Al-Ettifaq played out a remarkable 2-2 draw on Monday as the former managed to narrowly avoid their nightmare campaign hitting a new low.
A very late penalty saved them from what would have been a disastrous sixth defeat out of seven games in the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League (SPL) season.
As they took to the field at King Fahd Stadium, watched by Saudi national team manager Herve Renard, both teams knew that only three points would ease the pressure on their clubs and coaches.
Al-Nassr, in particular, have endured a catastrophic start to the season, losing five and winning only one of their first six games to leave them rooted to the bottom of the 16-team league. After pushing Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal all the way for the SPL title last season, their collapse has been as severe as it was unexpected.
Al-Ettifaq’s start to the campaign has been marginally better, but with only seven points from their first six matches, they were just one point clear of the relegation zone, in 13th place, before Monday’s game.
Looking devoid of all confidence, Al-Nassr performed like they have all season and so it was Al-Ettifaq who started the brighter of the two. Naim Sliti almost gave the visitors the lead on eight minutes but his firm, left-footed strike was tipped over by Brad Jones. It would prove to be a busy half for the Australian goalkeeper.
Although Al-Ettifaq continued to be the better team, Al-Nassr thought they had taken the lead on 19 minutes, only for Abderrazak Hamdallah’s goal to be — correctly — chalked off for offside. Minutes later, Sliti’s deflected shot was superbly saved by Jones to prolong the stalemate.
Abdullah Al-Salem had another chance to put Al-Ettifaq ahead when he was put through on goal but the alert Jones managed to get in a saving tackle just in time.
Al-Ettifaq would get one last chance in the half, deep into injury time. Slovak midfielder Filip Kiss was fouled by Maicon and, after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR), the referee awarded a penalty. Kiss himself took it and sent Jones the wrong way to give Khalid Al-Atwi’s team the lead.
Rui Vitoria rang the changes for Al-Nassr at half time, with Moroccan playmaker Nordin Amrabat and Sami Al-Najei replacing Osama Al-Kahalf and Ali Al-Hassan. Almost immediately the home team looked more energized, with Amrabat twice stretching Al-Ettifaq’s defense down the right flank. It proved to be a mirage.
Only five minutes after the restart, the brilliant Sliti met Mohammed Al-Kwikbi’s cross and struck a stunning volley to give Al-Ettifaq some breathing space and leave Al-Nassr struggling to keep their heads above water.
On 57 minutes Al-Nassr were thrown a lifeline when Kiss elbowed Al-Najei and, again with the input of the VAR, another penalty was awarded. Hamdallah, the SPL’s top scorer in the past two seasons, struck his spot kick wildly over the bar — the pressure had clearly gotten to even the best of the team’s players.
Al-Nassr belatedly took control of the match in the closing stages, however, and with only two minutes remaining, Al-Najei halved the lead to give his team a glimmer of hope — especially when the referee signaled that six minutes of stoppage time would be added.
It proved to be enough, with another VAR-assisted penalty award giving Al-Nassr one last chance to clinch a point. This time Hamdallah converted with a “Panenka strike,” leaving Al-Ettifaq deflated by the late refereeing decisions that went against them, having come so close to a valuable victory.
“Of course it’s better to draw than to lose,” said relieved Al-Nassr defender Abdullah Madu. “The match had some controversial moments but I’d like to congratulate my teammates on the comeback. To be two goals down, it’s tough to recover.
“We promise our fans that we will be doing our best to do even better in the coming matches. We are not happy with what’s going on. All teams go through difficult times but we are capable of overcoming them.”
Man of the match Sliti blamed naivety for his side’s dropped points. “When you’re leading 2-0 and end up drawing, we’re not going to be satisfied,” said Al-Ettifaq’s star man. “Perhaps it was lack of experience that meant we couldn’t maintain the result. I won’t speak about the referee but I can say it was our lack of experience that led to this result.”
He also praised the provider of the assist that led to his spectacular goal.
“It was great play from Al-Kwikbi to provide me with an excellent opportunity and I repaid the favor with the finish,” added Sliti.
Al-Salem struggled to hide his disappointment with the result and the nature of his team’s late collapse.
“I think we deserved the three points today but that’s football,” he said. “I don’t like to comment on certain things but there were some strange incidents. I saw that the equalizer came on 90-plus-10 minutes — I don’t know where that time came from.
“We held out till the 89th minute (before conceding) the first goal — we should have had enough experience and focus to keep possession and defend. Mistakes and the late penalty means a draw is not convincing. But away to a big club, a point is better than nothing.”
Meanwhile Al-Hilal extended their lead over Al-Shabab at the top of the table to five points after an 84th-minute Ali Al-Bulaihi goal gave them a 1-0 win at Al-Raed. Earlier in the day, Al-Fateh lost 3-1 at home to Abha Club.
On Saturday, Damac twice overcame two-goal deficits to record a stunning 4-3 win over Al-Ahli. They scored three goals in the last 15 minutes, including Mazen Abo Shararah’s 92nd-minute winner. Al-Batin and Al-Taawoun drew 1-1, as did Al-Faisaly and promoted Al-Ain at Al-Majmaa Sports City.
On Sunday, Al-Qadisiya produced one of the surprises of the week with a 2-1 home win over second-placed Al-Shabab, while Al-Ittihad continued their improved run of form with a 2-1 victory at Al-Wehda.