It has been a stop and start season in the Saudi Professional League but it got moving again on Thursday as Al-Ahli drew 2-2 with Al-Batin and Al-Ettifaq climbed out of the bottom three by thrashing Al-Taawoun in a relegation six pointer. There is still plenty of action to come in the next few days and here are five talking points.
Only Al-Ittihad can stop Al-Ittihad winning title
With 14 wins out of their 16 last games, it is no surprise that Al-Ittihad are in control of the title race. There were eyebrows raised in Jeddah on Tuesday evening as their closest challengers, Al-Hilal, slipped up and lost to Al-Feiha — one of the defending champions’ two games in hand. It means that the Tigers have to collect just eight points from their remaining five games regardless of what Al-Hilal do. A first title since 2009 is within reach and defeating Al-Fateh will be a massive step towards the championship.
While Al-Hilal have been busy in Asia, Al-Ittihad have played a couple of friendlies and should be fit and raring to go. Long-time absentee Ahmed Hegazi is finally back. The Egyptian centre-back, perhaps the best in the league, hasn’t played since picking up an injury in the African Cup of Nations in January, but is fit again. With the cushion that the leaders have, coach Cosmin Contra may not bring the 31-year-old straight into the team and can afford to be patient. He also has a wealth of attacking options.
It is looking very good and the only team that can stop Al-Ittihad is Al-Ittihad. They are almost there and just have to keep their nerve against a team that theoretically is not safe from relegation on paper but in practice does not have much to play for.
Al-Faisaly need to bring Asian form to the league
The men from Dammam took a break from their relegation scrap to finish top of their Asian Champions League group last month, finishing above big guns such as Al-Sadd. It was an impressive achievement and should boost their confidence as they look to preserve their top-flight status. Their league form had improved with seven points coming from the last three games but they are just two points above the drop zone and need to be careful.
New signing Martin Boyle impressed in Asia and the Australian winger provides another outlet for a team that sometimes has problems finding the target. If Boyle can maintain his early promise and the backline, which conceded just four times in six Asian games, can stay tight, then all should be well.
The Riyadh derby is a big one
It is hard to know which is better preparation for the final few games of the season. Is it better to do what Al-Shabab did and play six games in the Asian Champions League? Or to rest and play some friendlies, as Al-Nassr have done? As things stand Al-Nassr are third and Al-Shabab fourth, just a point behind. After Al-Hilal’s defeat, the winner of this game will go into second place.
Al-Shabab’s form at home prior to the continental action was a little patchy, but under new coach Marius Sumudica they return to league action full of confidence after collecting 16 points out of 18, more than any other in the group stage. That should stand the team in good stead heading into this major clash.
Al-Nassr are likely to provide a tougher test than the recent Asian ones, however. They may be without star striker Vincent Aboubakar due to injury and there are doubts as to whether Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodriguez will be fit but there is still plenty of talent in the yellow ranks. It should be quite a game.
Big game for Al-Hilal and Damac
It goes without saying that after losing earlier in the week Al-Hilal have to win at home to have even the slimmest chance of catching Al-Ittihad. The clash is not all about the Asian champions, however. It is a massive one for Damac who will want to end an amazing season on a high. They are going to finish at least fifth and achieve their highest finish in the league, though they are not going to match those heady days a third of the way through the season when they were top.
A run of just two wins in 10 saw the team slide out of the top four but they have recovered to win four of the last five with the one defeat coming against the leaders. There is still a faint chance of getting back into the top four as they are only five points behind Al-Shabab. But the important thing is to end the season with a good run of form and start building for the next campaign.
Relegation scrap is one of the fiercest ever
There are plenty of leagues around the world that are approaching the final stretches of the season. Few though can have the kind of intense bottom half battle that is going on in Saudi Arabia.
With most teams having five games left, it is theoretically possible for any outside the top five to go down. That is unlikely but any of the eight teams in the bottom half of the table could be in for the dreaded drop. Al-Raed are in ninth and just four points clear of trouble. They can’t relax. Only Al-Hazm are cut adrift at the bottom. It would be a brave person indeed who predicted which two of the other seven clubs will join them in the second tier. The great thing for the neutral is that a lot of these teams are playing each other in the coming games so the drama should continue right until the end.