RIYADH: The semifinals of the King’s Cup threw up plenty of action. On Sunday, Al-Hilal came back from a goal down to defeat Al-Shabab 2-1 after extra time while Al-Fayha shocked Al-Ittihad to win 1-0. Here are five things we learned.
1. No World Cup after effects for Odion Ighalo
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the striker took his frustrations out on Al-Shabab. Ighalo returned from international retirement in November and there was some controversy when he was not released by his club for the African Cup of Nations in January. That club was Al-Shabab and soon after, he left for Al-Hilal, who were lower down in the table. Not anymore.
The former Manchester United man was called up by the Super Eagles for their World Cup playoff against Ghana. He came off the bench in the second leg at home but could not prevent the Black Stars from winning on away goals and taking a place in Qatar.
It was a heartbreaking situation for all Nigerian fans and on Sunday Ighalo was seemingly more determined than ever to get on the scoresheet. It was a real striker’s goal, an instinctive shot from outside the area that won the game, broke Al-Shabab’s hearts and ended a bad week on a high.
2. Al-Fayha show the magic of the cup is still alive, with some Serbian help
After Al-Hilal’s win on Sunday, the country was expecting a big final with Al-Ittihad but the league leaders were caught out by a feisty Al-Fayha. The men from Al-Majma’ah took the game to the Tigers in the first half and took the lead nine minutes before the break thanks to great work from Malek Al-Abdalmoniem and a fine finish from Mohammed Abusabaan.
It was a hard-working performance from Vuk Rasovic’s men. It was almost all one-way traffic in the second half as Al-Ittihad pushed forward but despite all their possession, they struggled to create clear chances. The number of last-ditch tackles and interceptions were impressive, and even when the defense was breached, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic was in excellent form and equal to anything that the men from Jeddah could throw at him. His flying save to tip a Abderrazak Hamdallah header onto the bar with 10 minutes remaining was world class and suggested that this was not going to be Al-Ittihad’s night.
There was even time at the end for Aleksandar Trajkovski, the man who dumped Italy out of the World Cup, to make an appearance. The North Macedonia star is 90 minutes away from a trophy and the same can be said for Al-Feiha — it would be a historic one.
3. Despite new coach Al-Hilal have a mental hold over Al-Shabab
Al-Hilal may have had around two thirds of possession but Al-Shabab had plenty of chances and looked dangerous throughout. Despite all that, they ended up losing, yet again. You have to go back to 2014 to find the last competitive victory over their Riyadh rivals. In this and last year’s seasons, Al-Shabab had been going for the title only to face Al-Hilal, get thrashed and practically drop out of contention.
Romanian boss Marius Sumudica will have learned a lot about his players in his first game in charge since succeeding Pericles Chamusca last month. His team fought hard, created chances and took the lead on the hour thanks to an Ever Banega penalty.
From that moment on however, the champions poured forward and it didn’t look like Al-Shabab were ever going to hold on. The attacks intensified after Salman Al-Faraj’s bullet levelled the scoreline with 18 minutes remaining and you could almost see the belief drain out of the men in white. For the rest of the season, as well as the AFC Champions League, the new Romanian boss is going to have to work hard to instill the right kind of mental strength in the team.
4. Al-Ittihad will be disappointed but not devastated
Chances of a double may now be over but when the dust clears, Al-Ittihad will not feel down too long as there is a bigger prize in their sights. The Tigers won the King’s Cup in 2018 but it was 2009 when they last got their claws on the league trophy. As things stand, they are 11 points clear of Al-Hilal in second and while the defending champions have seven games remaining, two more than the leaders, it really is Al-Ittihad’s league to lose.
Coach Cosmin Contra will tell his players that the result against Al-Fayha is one of those things. Mistakes were made at the back against an opposition that then defended fiercely. On another night, it could have gone differently but Al-Ittihad need to put it behind them and focus on the positives. Igor Coronado looks to have returned to full fitness and looked sharp, and defender Ahmed Hegazi should be ready to take the pitch when the big games come thick and fast in May. Al-Ittihad need four wins to wrap up the league championship.
5. It is the final that Saudi Arabia needs
Al-Hilal are the only club with a chance of catching Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Pro League and it is to be hoped, at least by neutrals, that the title race goes all the way in the coming weeks. It would not have been ideal to have the same two teams in the King’s Cup final. Now there is a different narrative and it is refreshing to see Al-Fayha make it. Their celebrations at the end of the win showed what the chance of a first major piece of silverware means to the club. For Al-Ittihad who have lifted the trophy nine times, it would surely not have had the same meaning.
The King’s Cup has thrown up some interesting winners of late with Al-Taawoun and Al-Faisaly celebrating in the past three seasons. Those triumphs have not propelled those teams to the next level just yet but they would not have swapped the experience for anything. It shows that while the big boys are too strong and consistent over the length of a league season, anyone can beat anyone in a cup tie situation and that is the way it should be.