It was another action-packed weekend in the Saudi Pro League as the season draws close to the end. There were thrilling clashes, dropped points and shocking defeats. Most teams have just three games remaining, but there is still plenty to play for at both ends of the table. Here are five things we learned from the latest action.
1. Al-Shabab are spent
There seems to be no other way to say it. The team, vibrant and full of attacking ideas just a few weeks ago, seemed set for the title. But you cannot lose four out of five games at this stage of the season and still expect to get your hands on the trophy. They are now four points behind leaders Al-Hilal with a far inferior goal difference and there does not seem to be any way back.
The 5-1 loss to Al-Hilal last week could have been written off as an aberration, especially as a red card had a major effect. But to lose 4-3 to Al-Ettifaq on Friday suggests that there is no way back even with what seems to be a gentle run-in. It was not a bad performance, but it was not the performance of champions.
It started well though. Former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo had the Riyadh club 2-0 up by the midway point of the first half and all was looking good, but then it all went wrong.
There was no secret about the defeat, no turning point: Al-Shabab missed chances and then made mistakes at the back. Coach Carlos Inarejos lamented his team’s luck, and while the young Spaniard did have a point, losing four out of five when the trophy is in sight is not just about luck.
2. Wonder goal trips up Al-Hilal but champs still on course
Jose Morais’s first game on the sidelines as boss of Al-Hilal was something of a disappointment. Had the champions defeated Al-Batin — a team fighting relegation that had picked up just two points from the previous six games — instead of drawing 1-1, the players would have been close enough to the trophy to see their reflection.
Al-Hilal took the lead thanks to another fine example of finishing from the league’s leading goal-scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, a wonderful rising volley. But that was nothing compared to Mohammed Rayhi’s strike on the half-hour.
The Dutch attacker picked up the ball inside his own half as Al-Batin counterattacked, ran to the edge of the Al-Hilal area and unleashed an unstoppable shot. You will not see a better goal all season. It looks like being a significant strike at both ends of the table has not only slowed down Al-Hilal’s march to the title, but could end up saving Al-Batin.
Al-Hilal had a number of chances to win the game, but it was fitting that these were wasted. Rayhi did not deserve to be on the losing side after what he did. Still, the champs are four points clear and looking good.
3. Relegation battle hotting up
Al-Ain became the first team to be relegated this season, though this had been coming for a while. As a newly promoted team, they had started the season with four straight defeats, and while there were occasional rallies, it always looked doomed.
However, others at the bottom are putting up more of a fight. Al-Batin did their survival chances no harm by picking up a point against Al-Hilal, and after eight successive defeats in all competitions, Al-Wehda finally returned to winning ways with an impressive 3-2 win at Al-Fateh.
There is often one team that comes back almost from the dead, and this season it is Damac. Coming off the back of three wins and two draws from the previous five games, the clash against Al-Ittihad was a big one, and it shows how much improved the team are that they were disappointed to draw 1-1.
4. Al-Ittihad in danger of missing out on Asia
The Tigers should be thankful that they have rallied after a slow start to even think about being in the title race, but that dream is surely over. The 1-1 draw with an in-form Damac means they are now five points behind Al-Hilal. More importantly, it means Al-Ittihad have slipped into fourth place behind Al-Taawoun on goal difference.
The focus is now on getting back into the top three and clinching a place in the 2022 AFC Champions League. The Jeddah club have a game in hand over Al-Taawoun and a decent run-in, but with just one win in the last five games, they need to get their house in order and not squander the hard work of recent weeks.
5. Al-Ahli breathe sigh of relief
It was perhaps fitting that this 1-0 win over Al-Qadisiyah was settled by a second-half penalty from (who else?) Omar Al-Somah. It was a forgettable game but a big result. Officials at Al-Ahli had been talking of the need just to get a win, however possible, to end a seven-game losing streak.
There have been rumors that the stay in Saudi Arabia of recently appointed coach Laurentiu Regencampf was going to be a short one, and while the win does not mean that the Romanian is safe or that all is now well in the green corner of Jeddah, it does mean that perhaps a corner has been turned. At least the narrative has changed, for now.