It has been a tough season for everyone. Well, almost everyone.
Bafetimbi Gomis continued to prosper. It was fitting that the Frenchman scored the goal that clinched league title number 17 for Al-Hilal on Sunday.
In the penultimate round of matches in the 2020-21 Saudi Pro League, Al-Hilal knew that a win over Al-Taawoun would guarantee the championship and the Frenchman struck after just five minutes to settle any nerves. His 23rd goal of the season went unanswered by the opposition, which meant that although Al-Shabab defeated Al-Faisaly 5-1, the challengers remain four points behind with just one game left to play.
Gomis was already a legend at the club with more than 100 goals since arriving in August 2018, and while there will be debate as to whether the former French international, 36 in August, will still be in Riyadh next season, especially after the recent signing of Mali striker Moussa Marega from FC Porto (though Gomis said after Sunday’s game that he wants to extend his stay), now is the time for celebration.
Al-Hilal did not have the smoothest of campaigns but held firm when it mattered.
“The players deserve praise and thanks,” said Portuguese coach Jose Morais after the game. “They have the talent and the know how to manage games and I just arrived to help with some organization.”
This was only the third game in charge for Morais who arrived earlier this month to replace Rogerio Micale. The Brazilian boss had not long been in the hot seat after February’s departure of Razvan Lucescu, before he had to make way too. To have three coaches in one season and to win the title and get through the group stage of the AFC Champions League is a fine achievement and testament to the team’s professionalism.
“I wanted to accept the challenge here as I knew some of the players and how good they are,” added Morais, who won the South Korean league title in 2019 and 2020 with Jeonbuk Motors. “We knew that Al-Taawoun would be a really difficult game because of the schedule we have had and having to play a strong opponent at home but we came through it.”
Al-Hilal’s Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar summed up the feelings of the players as they celebrated. “We have achieved a well-deserved title,” Cuellar said. “We went through a difficult time this season but we knew how to come out of it and we are delighted to defend the title. We worked hard and I thank the coaches that we have had for how they helped us.”
As is the case around the world, the celebrating champions did not give much thought to the challengers. Al-Shabab pushed Al-Hilal all the way and Sunday’s 5-1 win over Faisaly was their second successive victory by that emphatic scoreline. Unfortunately, in the six games prior to that, the Riyadh club picked up just four points, a mini slump that ended up costing them the title. There is little to do but vow to learn from the experience and come back stronger.
“We fought right until the end of the season and I am happy with the players, they are an excellent group and have proven themselves this season,” said Carlos Inarejos, who succeeded Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha in January. It remains to be seen if the Spaniard, just 36, is in the hot seat next season, but if so, then he will lead Al-Shabab into Asia.
“We are in second and have confirmed our place in the AFC Champions League and that is a stage in which our players deserve to play.”
Nobody could disagree with that and while it is early days, if Al-Shabab can keep hold of influential Argentine playmaker Ever Banega and shore up the defense that struggled a little as the season reached its climax, then next season may be even better.
Al-Ittihad may not have enjoyed watching their rivals celebrate another league title but the results mean that they need one point from their last two games to guarantee a place in the top three in order to join Al-Hilal and Shabab in the AFC Champions League next year. As they are at home to the already relegated Al-Ain on Tuesday, it should not be a problem.
And while the title race is sorted, the relegation battle is not. On Tuesday, Al-Batin and Damac meet in a six-pointer. A win for the former would go a long way to ensuring their safety but defeat would see them back in the dropzone below Damac.