The latest round of action in the Saudi Professional League started in 2021 and ended in 2022. Here are five things we learned as the season hits the halfway stage.
1 Super Cup dress rehearsal could be a turning point for Al-Hilal.
The record books will show that the champions defeated Al-Faisaly 3-2 to stop a winless streak of four games, but that doesn’t tell the full story.
At the beginning of the second half, Al-Hilal were 2-0 down against a struggling team that had lost their previous three games and coach Leonardo Jardim was in danger of losing his job. Then came a penalty decision that angered Al-Faisaly, a team already upset as they felt that Mohammed Al-Breik should have been dismissed in the first half for a very cynical foul that stopped a dangerous counter-attack. Al-Breik was then adjudged to have been brought down in the area. Jardim won’t care as that decision could have saved his job.
Bafetimbi Gomis tucked away the spot kick and when Salem Al-Dawsari capped off a great year with another lovely strike shortly after to make it 2-2, it was game on. It was not then a great surprise when Gomis popped up with a late winner.
It just about keeps Al-Hilal in the title race but while the two teams meet again in the Super Cup on Friday, the champions need to stay focused on the return to league duty in the following week as performances have to improve.
2 Al-Ittihad show championship mettle
The victory at Al-Batin was the third 3-2 win in a row for Al-Ittihad, and each time they have come from behind to take all three points. Conceding two goals a game is not the way to the title but the Tigers have the firepower and mentality to win. Star defender Ahmed Hegazi was at pains to point out that coming from behind three times is not luck but a sign that the team has the belief and the desire.
With the winning goal coming in the 93rd minute on Friday, it may be tempting to suggest that there was an element of luck but Al-Ittihad deserved the victory. If the leaders can cut down on individual mistakes they will be hard to stop. After a slight wobble in September and October, Al-Ittihad have managed five wins out of five and are looking very dangerous indeed. While coach Cosmin Contra will be without Hegazi for the African Nations Cup, the arrival of Abderrazak Hamdallah should guarantee goals and that spells bad news for the rest of the league.
3 Ighalo leaves Al-Ahli coach on the brink
The headlines shouldn’t really be about the former Manchester United striker scoring the decisive goal in a thrilling 4-3 win over Al-Ahli, but Odion Ighalo did it again to maintain his place as the top scorer in the league. Al-Shabab, who have won eight of their last nine games, raced to a two-goal lead against a team that had lost their last three league matches. Al-Ahli fought back to lead 3-2, but two goals in three minutes in the second half kept Al-Shabab in second place and left Al-Ahli in relegation trouble.
The Jeddah club have shown some patience in sticking by coach Besnik Hasi despite a poor season. With the season at the halfway point, Al-Ahli are 12th, just a point above the relegation zone. Their next two games against teams below them in the table, so if there is going to be a change it needs to come soon.
4 Talisca and Aboubakar starting to click
Al-Nassr have had a real up and down few months, so it is amazing that they are now suddenly in third place and have won four of their last five games. The latest, a 1-0 victory at Al-Fateh, was hard work. The hosts were missing players due to COVID-19 and then were reduced to 10 men early in the second half. Al-Nassr kept knocking on the door and finally broke the deadlock with 15 minutes remaining.
Vincent Aboubaker and Anderson Talisca, who played together in Turkey with Besiktas, have been working well together and they combined for the winner. The Cameroonian has gone from strength to strength, especially with the departure of the troubled Abderrazak Hamdallah.
He just managed to get in front of his defender to set up Talisca, who just edged in front of his marker to steer the ball home. It was a simple but classic attack. There are three winnable games in January and nine points would really put Al-Nassr in sight of the summit.
5 Damac’s title challenge fading but that’s OK
The 3-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Taawoun, who are fighting relegation, does not signify that Damac are out of the title race but with two points from the last three games and a 5-0 thrashing in the King’s Cup, confidence and league position are slipping.
They are six points off the pace, having played a game more than the leaders. It was always going to be difficult for a team that has had only two seasons in the top tier — which were both centred on survival — to mount a genuine challenge for the championship. In short, it was not just difficult but unrealistic. There is just not the strength in depth to compete with the big boys.
And that’s fine. This year is not about trying to finish first. Any top half finish would be the best in the club’s history. A top six placing would be major progress and would put Damac in good stead to do even better next year. Making the top three and a potential place in the AFC Champions League would be dreamland.