The Al-Hilal machine goes rolling on after the Saudi Pro League leaders defeated Al-Tai 2-1 on Friday to record a 16th successive victory in all competitions.
It was a strange game in that the Riyadh giants dominated but were never able to kill off their hosts, for whom goalkeeper Moataz Al-Baqawi was in fine form.
In the end, it did not matter as Hilal, threatening to pull away at the top of the table, went at Al-Tai from the start.
In the 15th minute, Kalidou Koulibaly’s smart half volley from outside the area drew a good diving save from Al-Baqawi and three minutes later the in-form Aleksandar Mitrovic should have opened the scoring.
A delightful volleyed through ball from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic freed the former Fulham forward who, with just the goalkeeper to beat, dragged his shot wide.
He was relieved in the 20th minute when a classic combination for both Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia swung into action. Salman Al-Faraj crossed from the right and there was Salem Al-Dawsari to send a flying side-footed volley high into the net from near the penalty spot. The two club legends embraced in celebration of a beautiful and important goal.
Ten minutes later, Hilal were given a penalty after Ibrahim Al-Nakhli handled a shot from Mitrovic. The Serbian stepped up to grab his 14th league goal of the season and to get on the score sheet for the seventh successive game, a feat last achieved in Saudi Arabia in 2012 by Brazilian striker Wesley.
Five minutes before the break, the ball fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and the Portuguese star curled home only for the goal to be ruled out due to an offside in the buildup, though it was a very tight call.
And it became painful for Hilal deep into added time thanks to another spectacular strike. Salman Al-Muwashar was twisting and turning in the middle of the Hilal half as he attempted to protect the ball from a group of blue-shirted players and then, suddenly, Tariq Abdullah stepped forward to side-foot a looping shot that beat the jumping Yassine Bounou, not far off his line on the edge of the 6-yard box.
Instead of 3-0 at the break, it was 2-1 and a game that had been dominated by the 18-time champions was suddenly looking very interesting indeed.
Al-Hilal were determined to make it as predictable as possible and within five minutes of the restart, Mitrovic’s half volley stung the hands of the goalkeeper. Moments later, a delicate chip from Neves just cleared the bar to land on the roof of the net.
Nobody will ever know how it was not 3-1 three minutes before the hour. Neves curled a delightful cross into the area. Milinkovic-Savic’s volley came back off the inside of the post but there was Al-Dawsari to react quickly and drive the rebound toward the top. Somehow, however, Al-Baqawi got there to tip the ball over.
The goalkeeper ensured that Hilal did not get a third goal but they picked up the points nonetheless.
Elsewhere, Al-Taawoun went third behind Al-Nassr with a 4-1 win at home to Al-Fayha, the losers perhaps tired after their Asian Champions League heroics in midweek when they won 4-1 at the Uzbekistan home of Pakhtakor to progress to the knockout stage.