There were plenty of talking points after Thursday’s games in the Saudi Professional League, and below are five things we learned.
1. Even understrength, Al-Hilal are hard to beat
The champions were not at their best against Al-Shabab but still managed to come from behind twice to draw 2-2.
The goals were not spectacular either. Bafetimbi Gomis fired home from the penalty spot after a defender had somehow fallen in front of him and then, with 20 minutes remaining, Ali Al-Bulaihi headed home from a corner.
Yet it could turn out to be a valuable point for Al-Hilal against a team desperate to win. This is partly because they were without a number of key players such as Salman Al-Faraj, Andre Carrillo, Abdullah Otayf, Salem Al-Dawsari and Mohammed Al-Breik. Any team in Saudi Arabia would miss such stars and, yet, after a mediocre first half, Leonardo Jardim’s men improved after the break.
Al-Shabab may have struggled so far this season, but it was only a few months ago when they finished second in the league. This was always going to be a difficult game for Al-Hilal, and to be understrength and still come away with a point may well be seen as a valuable result at the end of the season.
2. Al-Ahli lose to leave Hasi on the brink
Coach Besnik Hasi is in real danger after Al-Ahli lost 2-0 against Al-Fayha, and the Kosovo Albanian boss is unlikely to be in charge in next week’s Jeddah Derby against Al-Ittihad. He sounded a defiant note after the defeat, which leaves Al-Ahli winless after six games of the season with just five points. “We played well and created many opportunities but just could not take them,” he said. “I am not afraid of being fired and I have been giving my all in the job.”
What was disappointing however is that Al-Ahli seemed to lack spirit and energy from the start, and once the first goal went in on the hour, heads dropped and defeat seemed inevitable. Despite the coach’s comments, Al-Fayha deserved the win and simply worked harder than the opposition. It now leaves Al-Ahli hovering just outside the relegation zone and the coach on the brink.
3. Al-Nassr are very much in the title race
A team that has just dismissed the coach often comes back with a quick win, and just four days after firing Mano Menezes, Al-Nassr defeated Al-Fateh 1-0. While they could have scored more goals, it did mark the first clean sheet of the season.
It was exactly what Al-Nassr needed. Now the Riyadh giants are only three points behind the leaders Al-Ittihad.
Caretaker coach Marcelo Salazar set up the team well, and Al-Nassr had over two-thirds of possession. He will be a little annoyed at not winning more convincingly as there were chances to do so. The boss went with a 4-2-3-1 formation and started striker Abderrazak Hamdallah on the bench. The Moroccan looked hungry when he replaced Vincent Aboubakar midway through the second half and came close to extending Al-Nassr’s lead. In midfield, Ali Al-Hassan and Abdullah Al-Khaibari don’t often make the headlines but had a very solid game.
It remains to be seen who the new coach is, but he is going to come and take over a talented team that will be able to challenge for titles at home and abroad.
4. Al-Shabab are showing signs of improvement
After a poor start to the season, the job of coach Pericles Chamusca was under threat. It still may be, but last season’s runners-up produced a good performance against the champions Al-Hilal to draw 2-2. This was a well-organized counter-attacking performance with Senegalese midfielder Alfred N’Diaye everywhere, protecting the defense and using the ball well to instigate attacks.
Whatever happens, Chamusca knows that his players are playing for him as they gave their all. Results have improved of late with a win and two draws from the last three games.
The fluidity is not yet there, and the team needs to use possession better, but this was a hard-working display, something to build on and much better than the 5-1 loss suffered in the last Riyadh Derby in May. The Brazilian boss may just have saved his job, for now at least, but more points are needed from the coming games.
5. Al-Ittihad will be smiling
The Tigers stay top after Al-Hilal failed to win and will be looking to take a four-point lead ahead of their rivals on Friday against bottom club Al-Taawoun in front of a sell-out crowd. Despite losing the first game of the season and firing their coach, Al-Ittihad are the only team so far to really put a run together. Al-Hilal have yet to lose but have dropped points, and the ups and downs of Al-Nassr have been well-documented.
There is still a long way to go this season of course, but with other teams dropping points, Al-Ittihad are in the winning groove and have the chance to put some daylight between themselves and their rivals. Even better is the fact that Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr will be busy with Asian commitments next month too.
The rest of the league should be careful that they don’t allow Al-Ittihad to get too far ahead, but with the likes of Igor Coronado in great form, few would bet against them recording a fifth straight victory on Friday.