Every round of games is crucial now in the Saudi Professional League and here are five things Arab News learned from the latest action.
Attackers get the headlines but defence is driving Al-Nassr’s challenge
Al-Nassr’s 1-0 win over Al-Taawoun was their sixth victory in a row and moves the team into second above Al-Shabab. The arrival of Miguel Angel Rosso as new coach has taken the team to a new level, or at least got them playing at the level they should have been at already. What the Argentine has done also is made the eight-time champions hard to beat.
After the 4-0 win over Faisaly, this was a tougher test against another relegation battler. Al-Taawoun caused problems and it was difficult for Talisca and Pity Martinez to get their creative juices flowing. When you have a defence as increasingly solid as Al-Nassr’s, however, the forwards can afford to have the occasional off day. Ramiro Mori and Abdulelah Al-Amri are developing a fine partnership in the middle of the backline.
Al-Nassr have not conceded a goal in 393 minutes of league football and that is laying the foundations for this winning streak. Now Rosso’s team is the one that leaders Al-Ittihad will be most worried about.
Forget Hamdallah, Romarinho is making the difference
The game itself was not one that will live long in the memory but the last few minutes will as Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Faisaly 1-0. It was an eighth successive win that increased their lead at the top to six points with a game in hand.
This was heading for a 0-0 draw when a corner fell to Romarinho at the far post with two minutes of regulation time remaining. The Brazilian was unmarked and had time to control the ball but surely he was also thinking what scoring would mean in the title race. He kept his nerve to fire into the roof of the net for what he said is one of his most vital goals in the yellow and black.
“This goal has a special feeling and it came thanks to the support of the fans,” said Romarinho. “We expected a tough game and that is what happened. Al-Faisaly are a well-organised team.”
It was not just a crucial goal that could have a major say in where the title ends up this season but it was the eighth in eight games for Romarinho.
There has been much said and written about the big signing of Abderrazak Hamdallah at the start of this month -and rightly so as the Moroccan marksman is a goal machine – but it is the Brazilian who has been banging them in.
Time is ticking for Jardim at Al-Hilal
It was just two months ago that Leonardo Jardim was lifting the AFC Champions League trophy in Riyadh after leading Al-Hilal to a record fourth continental title, but that felt a long time ago on Friday following a 1-1 draw at relegation strugglers Al-Batin.
Al-Hilal’s league form suffered following that Asian win, with just two points coming from the following four games and that has put Jardim under pressure. Nine points from the next three games suggested that a corner had been turned, even if the points came against struggling teams.
But with Al-Ittihad winning six in a row, Al-Hilal’s trio of wins did not dent the deficit and now they find themselves 10 points behind the leaders. It is going to take something special for the defending champions to catch up. At the moment, the champs don’t seem to have it and are less than the sum of their talented parts,
Next comes the FIFA Club World Cup. There are not going to be any coaching changes before then but Jardim can’t afford too many more missteps.
Relegation teams are tough nuts to crack
You have to feel a little sorry for Al-Faisaly. The King’s Cup winners have picked up just two points from the last seven games and it is no surprise that they are in danger of the drop, one place off the bottom.
Yet Al-Faisaly are a decent team and deserved a point from their trip to Jeddah to take on the leaders. In the last four games they have met Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal. That is a punishing schedule. It is not a surprise that they collected just a point though deserved a little more.
Those at the top know that there are no easy games and no easy points. Al-Taawoun gave Al-Nassr a real test and were left feeling that they should have come away from that clash with a point and Al-Batin did get a point against Saudi Arabian and Asian champions Al-Hilal.
Al-Shabab can’t afford to keep dropping points
On the first day of 2022 Al-Shabab were just a point off the top but Thursday’s 1-1 draw at home to Al-Fateh was the third in succession for last season’s runners-up. Those six dropped points are a problem when Al-Ittihad, the team in first place, keep winning.
There were complaints about the refereeing again but, while it is easy for the title-chasers to blame the officials, there was a simpler explanation for the result.
Al-Shabab had the chances to put the game to bed before Al-Fateh’s late, lovely, curling equaliser. They missed the suspended Ever Banega, however. The Argentine’s craft and guile makes a difference, creates space and upsets defences. At least Odion Ighalo returned to the scoresheet. If the Nigerian, who broke the deadlock with a shot from outside the area, can provide a cutting edge then Al-Shabab have a chance, but after dropping six points it is now a slim one.