The Saudi Pro League title race is going down to the last day, and so is the relegation battle, as the conclusion of the 2021-22 season now becomes one of the most exciting in recent times.
The penultimate round of action took place on Thursday and it was epic as both Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad won their matches. Here are five things we learned from the action across the Kingdom.
1. Super Al-Dawsari puts Al-Hilal on the brink
Al-Hilal defeated Al-Fateh 3-0 and now know that a win in the final game will bring them the title. Salem Al-Dawsari scored twice in the first half to ensure that there was not going to be a surprise result. The 30-year-old is a scorer of spectacular goals — his strike against Al-Ittihad in the previous game was a thing of beauty — but that was not the case on Thursday. His first came from a scramble a meter from the goalline as a host of players tried to bundle the ball in the net or clear it. His second came from not much further out.
He won’t mind. This was all about the result and ensuring that the defending champions have their title fate in their hands. This was potentially a tricky game but Al-Hilal showed why they are a winning machine. They were two goals ahead by half-time and there was no way that Al-Fateh were going to come back. Al-Ittihad are waiting for their rivals to slip but they never came close to doing so with the likes of Al-Dawsari enjoying the race. Few expect they will let the trophy fall out of their hands against Al-Faisaly on Monday.
2. Al-Ittihad show fight to stay in the race
The long-time leaders fell off their perch at the top but stay in the race with a 3-1 come-from-behind win against Ettifaq. After 29 games, the top two teams are level on points, but Al-Hilal have the advantage as they have won both meetings between the two teams and have the better head-to-head record. Had Al-Ittihad lost last night, the title race would have been over.
With 20 minutes remaining that looked possible with the Tigers a goal down. Yet they bounced back thanks to a brace from Romarinho and a late strike from Abderrazak Hamdallah that sealed the win.
For a team that had taken one point from the previous three games and were on a serious wobble, it was an impressive comeback. It was helped by the introduction of Igor Coronado midway through the second half and the Brazilian offered creativity, ball retention and penetration.
All that will be needed in the final game against Al-Batin. Al-Ittihad will just have to beat another relegation struggler and hope that Al-Hilal fail in their task. It is not in the hands of the Jeddah club seeking a first title since 2009, but it is not over yet.
3. Al-Ahli drop into the danger zone
With all the focus on the title race, Al-Ahli have been quietly sliding down the table and the 3-1 loss at home to relegation rivals Al-Raed saw the Jeddah giants finally slip into the bottom three. With just one win from the last nine league games it is not hard to see why. The appointment of Robert Siboldi as coach in March has done little to change the team’s fortunes.
The problems were there on Thursday for all to see. The team fell asleep at a corner to allow Aqeel Al-Sahbi to slide home at the far post. The second goal on the hour saw a long ball cause chaos in the defense. And there was another set piece for the third goal which meant that Carlos Eduardo’s late consolation wasn’t much of one.
Now the unthinkable is close. The 2016 champions, runners-up in the Asian Champions League a decade ago, know that a loss against Al-Shabab in the final game will send them down and even a draw may not be enough. For a team that hasn’t kept a clean sheet since February, there are going to be a lot of nerves.
4. The relegation battle goes from dramatic to epic
With one game left to go, seven teams are still fighting for their top flight lives. With Al-Hazm down already, just three points separate Al-Tai (and their terrible goal difference) in ninth and Ettifaq in 15th. None are safe.
On Thursday Al-Raed, Al-Batin and Al-Faisaly won and then climbed above Ettifaq and Al-Ahli who have now slipped into the bottom three. Those two teams have fallen three places each just due to losing one game. Al-Taawoun picked up a valuable draw against Al-Shabab and after Al-Tai lost to Al-Faisaly, they can’t be completely relaxed either.
With so many teams involved, every point, every goal could be the difference between staying up or going down. There is so much to keep up with that it is almost impossible to do so. Almost every game in the final round will feature a team that is chasing the title or fighting to stay in the league. It’s great for the neutral but it’s going to be a tough night for fans of the strugglers.
5. Al-Nassr win the battle for third
The battle for third place has been raging between Al-Nassr and Al-Shabab just below the fight for the title. For a time in the season, these two teams were leading the chase for Al-Ittihad’s position before Al-Hilal went on their run.
Al-Nassr will take third thanks to a 4-1 win over the doomed Al-Hazm. Talisca scored twice to move on to 20 goals for the season. There have been rumors that the Brazilian will be on his way soon but he suggested after the game that this will not be the case. Al-Nassr will want to keep him.
Al-Shabab were riding high earlier in the season and were rocked a little by the departure of leading goalscorer Odion Ighalo in January. With the Nigerian in place perhaps they would have defeated Al-Taawoun instead of drawing 1-1. It has been a long season especially with the Asian Champions League in April, when the Riyadh club impressed, but the signs are positive for the next campaign.