Back in February when Al-Ittihad were 16 points clear of Al-Hilal, not even the most optimistic fans of the team from Riyadh and their most pessimistic counterparts in Jeddah would have imagined that there would be a genuine title race, let alone a battle that had them neck and neck with two games to go.
Not only has that scenario become reality, but the trophy is very much in the court of the defending champions. If Al-Hilal take six points against Al-Fateh on Thursday and then Al-Faisaly next Monday, then they will finish first regardless of how Al-Ittihad fare against Al-Ettifaq and Al-Batin.
It could be decided sooner. If Al-Hilal win the penultimate game and the Tigers lose to Al-Ettifaq (the two games take place at the same time on Thursday), then the Blues will be champions for the 18th time on Thursday. Both teams have 61 points from 28 games, but if they finish level, goal difference will not come into it. League rules state that head-to-head results come first, and that means that Al-Hilal are champions as they beat their rivals in March and then again in May.
Those two results have gone a long way to giving neutrals a title race to get excited about, but there is more to it than that. Ramon Diaz took over from Leonardo Jardim in February and while fans may not have been thrilled at the return of the Argentine, he and the team embarked on a quite remarkable run of 11 wins from the next 12 league games. With Al-Ittihad taking just seven points from the last six, it is not hard to see why it has become so tight.
Al-Hilal deserve plenty of plaudits. Despite the punishing commitments of the FIFA Club World Cup and the Asian Champions League, they are now in pole position. It was thought that Al-Ittihad would have the advantage with just 16 games to play this year compared to their rival’s 27, but it has not worked out what way.
Both teams have had a break since the last league action at the end of May, and both should be close to full strength, barring the long-term injuries Al-Hilal have with striker Saleh Al-Shehri and midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki. Playmaker Matheus Pereira, captain Salman Al-Faraj and defensive lynchpin Jang Hyun-soo are fit to face Al-Fateh. The South Korean will have to handle Firas Al-Buraikan, one of the stars of the victorious U-23 team that lifted the Asian Cup on Sunday.
On paper, Al-Hilal’s game is easier. Al-Fateh are in sixth and cannot finish any higher and are not going down. They have little to play for, though coach Georgios Donis has pledged that they will give their all.
“This is an important match for us,” Donis said. “The players will be motivated, and we will come out and play our best. We will play the way that befits the name of Al-Fateh.”
Still, the former Greek international who took APOEL of Cyprus into the UEFA Champions League knows it will not be easy.
“Al-Hilal are a fine team with star players, but I am not scared of them. I have coached in big matches against Barcelona and stars such as Neymar, Suarez and Messi, so I do not fear Al-Hilal.”
Al-Ittihad’s opponents Al-Ettifaq may be further down the table than Al-Fateh but are desperately fighting to avoid relegation. Since appointing Frenchman Patrice Carteron in March, results have improved with the Dammam team taking 11 points from seven games. As things stand, Al-Ettifaq are just a point above relegation and a win would enable everyone to breathe much easier heading into the final day.
“We have been working hard to prepare for this game,” said coach Carteron. “We know it won’t be easy but are ready for the challenge.”
Cosmin Contra, Al-Ittihad boss, will be happy with the news that midfielder Andre Felipe and defender Muhannad Al-Shanqeeti are available and Brazilian star Igor Coronado should be fit to play after missing training earlier in the week. Al-Ittihad have been working hard in training with a focus on eliminating the kind of defensive errors that have seen them drop crucial points in recent games.
Even off the training pitch, the Romanian has much to think about. Al-Ittihad last won the title in 2009 and have come close since but not this close. Having a double-digit lead in the final weeks of the season and throwing it away would be hugely embarrassing as well as disappointing. In the longer term, it could also be psychologically damaging for a club that was already starting to fret about a dry run without a title that is in danger of becoming a drought.
The Tigers only have themselves to blame however with just one point from the last three games. It started with a 4-4 draw with Al-Fateh, which saw a 3-1 lead thrown away. Then came a 3-1 loss to their rivals and a 1-0 defeat to struggling Al-Tai last time around. That is a serious wobble. Yet despite the talk of Al-Hilal now being favorites, this season has shown that you never know. There is still plenty of time for more twists and turns and anything could happen.
This has been a great week for Saudi Arabian football, indeed a great year. The national team topped their World Cup qualification group to reach a sixth World Cup. The women played their first ever international game and the U-23 team are champions of Asia. Now the title race is on a knife edge.