It has not been the best of seasons for Al-Nassr and big-money signing Pity Martinez but they, and their fans, will never forget Tuesday evening when they threw a mighty spanner in the title dreams of rivals Al-Hilal in the Riyadh derby.
The real beneficiaries of the result are Al-Shabab, who are now five points clear of the losers at the top of the Saudi Pro League table with two thirds of the season gone. With 10 games remaining, there is still a long way to go but Al-Hilal can’t afford many more missteps.
Defending champions Al-Hilal started the weekend hoping to go top of the table but Martinez’s smart finish midway through the first half, after a lovely floated assist from Brazilian midfielder Petros, put paid to their ambitions. With leaders Al-Shabab recording a 3-0 win over third-placed Al-Ahli 24 hours earlier, things are looking good for the leaders.
It is the mark of champions that when they have a setback, they pick themselves up and start again. That is what Al-Hilal have shown in the past and what Al-Shabab did this week. After an impressive run of six wins and one draw from the previous seven matches, the leaders crashed to a shock 2-1 loss at home to Al-Fateh last Wednesday.
That defeat was especially surprising given the fact that Al-Shabab opened the scoring but still lost, with the decisive goal coming three minutes into stoppage time. Mitchell te Vrede’s last-gasp winner could, some feared, spark a slump. How would the team and Carlos Inarejos, an inexperienced 36-year-old coach in charge for not much more than a month, manage with a top of the table clash with Al-Ahli looming just a few days later?
The answer was emphatic. Monday saw a controlled and efficient performance from the leaders. While under pressure at times, they took an early lead through Ahmed Sharahili and looked fairly comfortable for the rest of the game, probing for opportunities to secure the three points. Sure enough, they came in the second half.
“We have players who are always ready to step up, whether they are starting the game or coming off the bench,” said Inarejos. “I made changes late in the game because I knew that my team would improve in the second half.”
The Spanish coach was delighted with the way his team bounced back. “We controlled the course of the match despite the pressure from Al-Ahli. The first goal gave us a little bit of a cushion and that was the key to winning.”
Al-Ahli’s star striker Omar Al-Somah was not happy with the performance of his team and in a post-match interview the Syrian admitted that the loss meant that the Jeddah club now had to focus on the AFC Champions League. Those sentiments are a little pessimistic with the team standing in third place, just six points behind Al-Shabab, but he was impressed with the victors. “Al-Shabab are playing good football and they deserved to win. They are a good team.”
The situation is looking encouraging for the leaders. On Sunday, Al-Shabab travel to Damac and will be confident of taking all three points from the team sitting next to bottom. Then come three clashes against top-half opposition, starting with Al-Qadisiya.
Perhaps the big test is next month’s trip to face Al-Ittihad. When the two teams last met in the semi-final of the Arab Club Championship in January, Al-Ittihad triumphed and cost Pedro Caixinho his job as Al-Shabab head coach, bringing Inarejos into the fray.
While Al-Shabab, champions in 2012, have moved up a gear under their new boss, the same can’t yet be said of Al-Hilal. The defending champions parted company with Razvan Lucescu — who also delivered the 2019 AFC Champions League — last week and replaced the Romanian with Brazilian Rogerio Micale. His first game was a 3-1 win over Al-Ettifaq but Al-Hilal’s legion of fans hate nothing more than losing to Al-Nassr and the South American was criticized for his substitutions that left his forwards without the necessary service to get the team back into the game.
“We made small mistakes and that cost us a goal,” said Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulayhi. “We tried to change things in the second half but were not able to take our opportunities. We have to put this behind us and think about what comes next and the chance to make up for what happened tonight.”
The best chance may be on April 17 when Al-Hilal meet Al-Shabab. If the former are still in touching distance it will be a titanic tussle.
For Al-Shabab, the challenge now is staying focused amid rising expectations. “We are taking each game as it comes,” said Inarejos. “That is all we can do.”
Sharahili agrees. “It was important to bounce back and erase that negative feeling from last week’s defeat,” the goalscorer said. “But we have to keep working, winning and trying to expand our lead. This league is difficult and nothing has been decided yet.”