RIYADH: Al-Hilal moved five points clear at the top of the Roshn Saudi League on Friday with a 3-1 win over Al-Ahli to record a seventh victory in succession in all competitions.
The 18-time champions may be without Neymar for the rest of the season but looked ominous as they saw off the challenge from the star-studded visitors.
The gauntlet was thrown down to Al-Ahli and the rest of the league inside the first minute while the smoke from the pre-match flares and fireworks was still hanging in the Riyadh air.
It was a simple goal but one full of quality. A long ball from inside the center circle from Kalidou Koulibaly found Sergej Milinkovic-Savic inside the area and the Serbian midfielder chested it down on the run and then stabbed home from close range.
Al-Ahli showed their attacking talents with Riyad Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin looking dangerous, but it was Al-Hilal who looked as if they were ready to extend their lead after 26 minutes.
After Malcom was deemed to have been obstructed in the area, a penalty was awarded, and in this particular West London reunion, former Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who bagged a hat-trick in Monday’s 6-0 thrashing of Mumbai City in the Asian Champions League, sent his shot a bit too close to Edouard Mendy. The ex-Chelsea goalkeeper got down well to make the save.
Yet this was not all about Al-Hilal. The visitors arrived in the capital in fifth place and in the knowledge that victory would send them into second.
Not long after the penalty, Saint-Maximin, who had been in doubt for the game due to injury, burst free, but the former Newcastle United star saw his shot blocked by Ali Al-Bulaihi.
Eight minutes before the break Mitrovic redeemed his penalty miss in magnificent fashion. Ruben Neves found Saud Abdulhamid on the right and his first-time cross reached the Serbian just inside the area and his powerful header flew into the net.
On the stroke of half-time, Al-Hilal came within millimeters of surely sealing the win. Malcom stepped up just outside the area to fire a left-footed free-kick past Mendy but, unfortunately from the view of the home team, the Brazilian’s shot bounced off the crossbar.
After the break, Al-Hilal continued to have chances to secure the points and, just before the hour, the defense had chances to clear an Al-Ahli attack. They failed to do so and Mahrez squared the ball to Saint-Maximin on the left side of the area and the French star stroked the ball home.
After 65 minutes, Al-Hilal should have restored their two-goal advantage as Salem Al-Dawsari on the left slipped the ball square to Mitrovic, who beat his defender but saw his shot well-saved by Mendy. Soon after, Milinkovic-Savic’s free-kick just cleared the bar.
The next goal was always going to be crucial and while it came from an Al-Ahli player, it went in the Al-Ahli net. With six minutes remaining, Abdulhamid sent a long ball from deep into the direction of Al-Dawsari. Roger Ibanez cut it out but while the Brazilian intended to head the ball back to Mendy from outside the area, he succeeded only in slipping it past the Senegalese shotstopper.
As both keeper and defender sank to their knees in despair, it was clear that there was no coming back from that and Al-Hilal took the points and extended their unbeaten run to 15 games in all competitions.
Earlier on Friday, Al-Fateh moved into third with a 2-1 win at Al-Raed, but the in-form Al-Nassr will go second on Saturday if they can win at Al-Fayah.
With the way things are going at the top of the table, neutrals will be cheering on Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr as they are looking like the only ones capable of stopping Al-Hilal.