The top four teams were in action once again in the latest round of action in the Saudi Pro League. Below are five things we learned.
1. Talisca makes spectacular use of greater freedom
It was hardly the most fluid of performances from Al-Nassr as they beat Damac 2-0, but the Yellows will not care as that makes it four wins in a row and five from the past six. The title challenge is well and truly on, though the gap behind Al-ittihad in first remains six points with one more game played.
Pity Martinez, with his first goal in almost a year, would normally be the one making the headlines, but this game was all about Talisca, though Waleed Abdullah pulled off some good saves in goal.
Since taking charge last month, coach Miguel Angel Russo has given the Brazilian greater freedom to roam. As Al-Nassr built an attack in the first half, Damac were perhaps expecting Talisca to be in the area. Instead he arrived late just outside the box, was given too much time and then fired a delicious shot into the top corner. The goal took him to 11 for the season and first place in the scoring standings, pretty impressive for someone who is not an out and out striker.
2. When even Hawsari scores then all is going well for Al-Ittihad
Al-Ittihad’s 2-0 win over Al-Feiha was a sixth league victory in a row and a welcome return to clean sheets after two successive 3-2 wins. It is almost crazy to think that Al-Ittihad fired their coach after losing two of the first three games of the season.
That is ancient history now with the Tigers three points clear at the top with a game in hand. It was a comfortable and deserved victory with the second goal a thing of beauty: A chipped pass from deep from Bruno Henrique into the area was met first time by Romarinho who lifted the ball over the goalkeeper in a way that only an expert poacher can.
Though less easy on the eye, the opening goal was noteworthy. Omar Hawsawi rose high to head Henrique’s first-half corner home. It was a regulation move but the first league goal the 36-year-old has scored since 2016. If the center-back is getting in on the scoring act then this really could be Al-Ittihad’s year. A first title since 2009 is looking increasingly possible.
3. Ighalo back in action, but can’t shoot Al-Shabab to victory
Nigeria may not be happy that Al-Shabab refused to release Odion Ighalo for the African Cup of Nations campaign but the Super Eagles’ loss should be the Riyadh club’s gain. Not quite on Saturday, however, as despite the best efforts of the former Manchester United man, Al-Shabab were held to a 1-1 draw by Abha.
It could have been worse as the title-chasers fell behind early but then had the chances to win the game and then some. It is a case of two points dropped to leave the six-time champions three points off the pace, even if there is a long way to go.
If Ighalo was annoyed at not getting the chance to become AFCON top scorer for the second successive tournament, he did not show it. The Nigerian worked hard and had the ball in the net early in the game, only for the strike to be ruled offside by VAR by the narrowest of margins. He came close again, but it was not to be. At least Ighalo looked sharp and Al-Shabab still look dangerous.
4. Damac lack game changers
It has been pointed out before that Damac’s title challenge was always unlikely to last. The 2-0 loss to Al-Nassr means they have taken just two points from the last four games, but the fact that they still sit in fourth place in the standings is testament to just how good they were earlier in the season.
This game was a pretty even affair, but the difference between the two teams was clear to see. Simply put, Damac lack talents of the caliber of Talisca and Pity Martinez. Croatian playmaker Mijo Caktas is a fine player who has had an excellent campaign so far, but the former Hajjduk Split star is unable to consistently change a game in the way that Al-Nassr’s creative players do.
For Damac, the important thing now is to keep their heads. There was always likely to be a dip at some point in a long season. The real challenge is to ensure that the slump does not become a major slide. Damac performed well enough against the in-form Al-Nassr, but the big game is next weekend’s clash with Al-Tai and the target is a win that will get the former leaders back on track.
5. Al-Taawoun trying to escape fierce relegation scrap
A 2-1 win over bottom club Al-Hazem looks to have given the Buraidah outfit some much-needed breathing space. It has been a roller-coaster few years for the Al-Taawoun faithful. In 2019, they finished third, almost got relegated the season after and last time around managed to take fourth spot in the league.
This campaign has been hugely disappointing. No wins, though plenty of goals, from the first nine games had the team in real trouble but the situation is improving. Last week’s 3-0 victory over Damac gave Al-Taawoun confidence and the latest victory pulls them up into the dizzy heights of 11th.
There is still a long way to go, however, and the relegation battle is shaping up to be fierce. Al-Hazem are in danger of getting cut off at the bottom, but then just four points separates the next eight teams. It is unfortunate for Al-Taawoun that their new-found momentum may well be broken next week at the home of champions Al-Hilal.