It is one of football’s great cliches that it is better to have points on the board than games in hand. If Al-Hilal did not agree before Tuesday, they probably do now.
The Saudi Pro League defending champions met Al-Feiha expecting to cut Al-Ittihad’s lead at the top to eight points but instead they ended up losing 1-0, a result that leaves the title race looking as good as over.
If that SPL race was a game, league leaders Al-Ittihad are 2-0 ahead with five minutes remaining and it is theirs to lose.
Al-Feiha’s goal came after 33 minutes. Sami Al-Khaibari got in front of defender Ali Al-Bulaihi to volley a corner into the bottom part of the net, and try as hard as the team from Riyadh did, they just could not get back in the game.
Despite over 70 percent possession, the champions did not create enough chances of real quality and were reduced too often to playing long balls into the area. When the opportunities came, they were not converted.
Al-Feiha had much to thank goalkeeper Vladamir Stojkovic for that. The Serbian made some fine saves to keep the titleholders at bay. Sticking in the memory was a flying block to keep out a Salem Al-Dawsari shot early in the game that looked destined for the top corner. Soon after the league’s top scorer Odion Ighalo had the ball in the back of the net but the goal was rightly ruled out for offside by VAR. Michael had a great chance just before the break but with just the goalkeeper to beat, shot wide from close range. The Brazilian hit the crossbar with just over 20 minutes remaining and that was as close as Al-Hilal came to getting anything from the game.
“We lost due to simple individual mistakes,” said a frustrated Al-Dawsari after it was all over. “They did not threaten our goal and did not create opportunities in open play and scored the winning goal from a corner but this is football.”
Al-Dawsari insisted that the title race was not over yet. “As players, we trust in ourselves, and the fans trust our capabilities, and the league is still there to be won. We will do our best to win all the upcoming matches and there is still time to come back from this result.”
The winger’s first comment sounds more plausible than the second but that is the message coming out of the club.
“It was a difficult game and we worked hard to create several chances to score, but the result didn’t go our way, we didn’t have any luck in front of goal,” said Ighalo. “Winning the title is now difficult but nothing has been decided yet and nothing is impossible. We will fight to win all the remaining games we have.”
If there is to be a chance, that is probably going to have to happen. As things now stand, the team from Jeddah are 11 points clear with five games left, one fewer than Al-Hilal. It is hard to imagine Al-Ittihad throwing it away now — three wins, or two wins and two draws, will bring the title back down to the Red Sea port for the first time since 2009, regardless of anything Ramon Diaz’s men can do.
It is not just the points gap. Al-Hilal have stopped winning at a crucial time of the season. On April 19, they defeated Istiklol of Tajikistan to make it 12 victories in a row. They ended the group stage of the Champions League with a draw and a defeat. Little was made of it all as they had already clinched a place in the knockout stage but successive losses are not something that the Riyadh giants are used to.
At a time when they probably need to win every game left this season, they lost again. A lack of fluency and creativity in attack does not bode well for the next few games. If it is a hangover from the exertions in the AFC Champions League, as Ighalo suggested, then coach Diaz could have rotated more during Group A, especially when a place in the knockout stage had been clinched with two games remaining.
As the players have said, the race is not officially over but even if Al-Hilal win all their games, one of which is against Al-Ittihad, they still need the Tigers to slip up. If the leaders defeat Al-Fateh on Friday to move 14 points clear when Al-Hilal have just six games left, it will surely be over.
For the league trophy to stay in Riyadh, there is going to have to be an amazing turnaround. It would rank as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Saudi Arabian football and that is why it is unlikely to happen.
Al-Ittihad have nine fingers on the trophy and will never forgive themselves if they let it slip now. Al-Hilal have to win and if they can do that, then they will have to wait and hope, but it is a very long shot indeed.
A much more realistic trophy this season is the King’s Cup and winning that upcoming final will also bring revenge against Al-Feiha, the team that has put a huge dent in the champions’ chances of retaining their league crown.