LONDON: The ecstatic supporters at King Saud University Stadium waved the blue flags in triumph.
After an absence of more than year brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, they had returned just in time to see their heroes take a giant step towards a record extending 17th Saudi Pro League title.
But Al-Hilal will have to wait for a few more days to get their hands on the trophy despite blowing Al-Ahli away with a 5-1 win on Wednesday after Al-Shabab had earlier beaten Al-Ain by the same score line to stay in the race.
It means, with two games in the season remaining, Al-Hilal are still four points clear at the summit and can clinch a second successive title with a win against Al-Taawoun on Sunday regardless of the result of Al-Shabab’s trip to Al-Faisaly on the same evening.
Al-Hilal were simply too good for Al-Ahli and when Salem Al-Dawsari opened the scoring after 15 minutes with a spectacular flick and volley, the result rarely looked in doubt.
Despite that fabulous strike, the real stars of the evening were the supporters after the Saudi Ministry of Sports ruled that stadiums could be filled to 40 percent capacity.
Thousands of fans, watching from the stands for the first time since March 2020, were able to enjoy the show and some more passionate than usual goal celebrations as players showed their delight at having supporters back.
“To have fans here gave us a lift,” said Al-Hilal coach Jose Morais.
“They made a great atmosphere and they really helped us in this game.”
Defensive mistakes also helped. Just after the half-hour, a suicidal pass from Motaz Hawsawi released Bafetimbi Gomis and while the league’s top goal scorer hit the bar with his first attempt, he kept his cool to head into the corner to extend the lead.
Hawsawi’s evening got worse after 39 minutes with a red card and when Gomis subsequently scored from the spot for goal number 21 of the season, the contest was over as Al-Ahli slipped to an eighth defeat in their last nine games.
Saleh Al-Shehri grabbed both second goals to put the Riyadh giants within touching distance of the trophy.
As Morais noted, the victory could have been more emphatic.
“We could have scored more goals as we created many chances,” the Portuguese boss said.
“But I am happy and proud of that performance but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Al-Shabab have even more to do, and must hope that the champions stumble in the remaining two games.
At least the challengers returned to winning ways after losing four of the last five, even if victory came against the already relegated Al-Ain.
All goals came from foreign players. Brazilian winger Seba started the ball rolling after 36 minutes and Odion Ighalo added a second soon after.
There was still time in the first half for Al-Ain to pull one back but midway through the second half, Ever Banega made it 3-1 from the spot and then Cristian Guanca and Igor Lichnovsky compounded Al-Ain’s misery.
“We controlled the game today and created lots of opportunities,” Shabab’s coach Carlos Inarejos said on Saudi television after the game.
“We deserved to win after being unlucky in the two previous games. I am delighted with the players and now we have to think about the game with Al-Faisaly”
Like his Portuguese counterpart, the Spaniard was delighted to see fans back in the stadium.
“They really gave us good support and I am happy we could give them that result and performance.”
The battle at the bottom of the table is heating up too.
Al-Batin came back from 2-1 down against Al-Ettifaq to pick up their first win since February thanks to two late goals.
It is a huge step towards safety and takes them three points clear of the drop zone.
Al-Wehda and Damac, three and four points behind respectively, may have a game in hand but that comes tonight as they play each other in what is sure to be a tense encounter.
On Sunday however, attention will turn to the top of the table clashes and Al-Hilal’s Italian star Sebastian Giovinco vowed that the leaders will not take their foot off the pedal.
“We are close to getting the league title but we have not got it yet,” the midfielder said.
“We must focus on the remaining two games and ensure that we win them both. It has not been an easy season for us, or for other teams, but it is great to have fans back. It is a completely different feeling when they are here.”
Just one more win means that the players and fans will have more reason to celebrate together.