Al-Hilal defeated Pohang Steelers 2-0 on Tuesday to win the AFC Champions League. It was a record fourth title for the Riyadh club and a feather in the cap of Saudi Arabian football, which is going through something of a purple patch at the moment in both club and international football. It was a comfortable win without the drama of some past continental finals.
Only a day later, however, two Saudi teams played to a match that left those who saw it rubbing their eyes in disbelief?
Alex Ferguson was famously exasperated after Manchester United scored twice in the dying moments of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final to come from behind to defeat Barcelona 2-1. He stunned the reporters with his direct quip.
But what would the Scot have said if he’d seen the breathtaking 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh on Thursday? Not only was it the highest scoring match in the history of the Saudi Professional League, but it arguably must be ranked among one of the best too. What is for certain is that it is the most exciting match of the season so far.
OK, some of the defending may not be studied in the upper echelons of world football anytime soon, even if the backlines were better than you may expect from looking at the scoreline, but it was a game that showed the strength in depth in the top tier of Saudi Arabian football. It also revealed the range of entertainment on offer in the league. Some of the attacking play was thrilling, plenty of the goals were out of the top drawer.
As a spectacle, it was astonishing. Al-Fateh were a team that had lost the previous three games and were sitting firmly in the bottom half of the table and concerned with not getting sucked into a relegation battle. They came up against a team in second but one that was only in their third ever season in the top tier with the first two being battles against relegation.
But first, let’s look at the game, though this may take some time with all the goals. In just the third minute, Carlos Cueva was given the freedom of the Damac area after a fantastic run and pass from right-back Nawaf Boushal and the Peruvian forward stabbed home the opener for Al-Fateh. Just 13 minutes later, the visitors were ahead thanks to two goals from Hillel Soudani. The Algerian cut in from the right, twisted and turned defenders on the edge of the area and then fired a precise left-footed shot into the corner. Soon after, he shot home a rebound with more power and Damac were ahead.
Within moments however, the hosts had equalised thanks to Ali Al-Zaqan. The initial goal had been ruled offside but VAR rightly overturned the decision. On the stroke of half-time, Damac struck again to go in at the break with a 3-2 advantage. It was another impressive strike. The ball fell to Felipe Augusto about 30 meters away from goal and the Brazilian’s low shot was fired into the bottom corner. Both teams continued to have excellent chances but when Mijo Caktas extended Damac’s lead just after the hour, it looked as if that was that. The Croatian skipped past a challenge outside the area and scored with another long-range shot that perhaps the goalkeeper, who was partially unsighted, should have kept out.
Al-Fateh had always looked dangerous however and pulled a goal back after 69 minutes after another Croatian made the scoresheet. Ivan Santini knew little about his strike as the goalkeeper’s save bounced off his chest and in. With 15 minutes remaining it was 4-4. A Damac hand in the box gave Al-Fateh a penalty and Cueva got his second.
Within seconds, amazingly, Al-Fateh were ahead thanks to Firas Al-Buraikan. The Saudi Arabian international could not miss from close range after a perfect cross from Murad Batna and so the hosts had come back from 4-2 down to be 5-4 ahead. This was surely one of the greatest comebacks and games in the league’s history.
But Damac were not finished. With 11 minutes still on the clock it was 5-5 as Emilio Zelaya scored another goal from outside the area.
“It was a very strange game,” said Al-Fateh president Saad Al-Afaliq. “We even could have won it late on had Firas Al-Buraikan had scored late in the game. We have had a few injuries but are now getting up to the right levels of fitness and condition.”
The point initially put Damac on top of the league but just two hours later, Al-Shabab defeated Al-Raed 3-0 to go into pole position. A first half goal from Moteb Al-Harbi was added to in the second half by Ever Banega and Carlos Carvalho. It is quite a turnaround for a club that won just one of their first six games of the season and were rumored to be thinking about firing coach Pericles Chamusca.
Now they are top and the title race is going to be something special. Al-Ittihad can return to the summit on Sunday and then Al-Hilal have several games in hand but are in fourth place. The season is shaping up to be an exciting one, but whatever happens, there won’t be a more exciting game than the 10-goal thriller witnessed on Thursday.