RIYADH: Al-Hilal won 2-0 at Al-Ettifaq on Monday to restore their seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at the top of the Roshn Saudi League.
It was also the club’s 24th successive victory in all competitions and showed the eighth-placed home team what was required to challenge at the summit of the table.
Al-Ettifaq had the busiest winter transfer window of any team in the top tier and collected a welcome win last week at Al-Khaleej. Al-Hilal are, however, a very different proposition and while the team from Dammam fought hard, the 18-time champions were just too strong.
Al-Hilal should have taken the lead in the 16th minute, but Kalidou Koulibaly’s low shot on the turn inside the area was well-saved by Paulo Victor. Soon after, Renan Lodi made a marauding run forward, though his fierce shot from outside the area just cleared the bar.
With around eight minutes of the half remaining, however, Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard must have been quietly satisfied. The champions may have made most of the running, but it was goalless, and the hosts had given themselves a platform to build on in the second half.
But then Al-Hilal struck twice before the break. The first goal was from a simple though well-executed corner from the right. It came from the boot of Ruben Neves and while it seemed as if the green shirts massing around the near post would be able to deal with it, in ran Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to send a bullet header into the back of the net for his ninth league goal of the season.
It was only one goal and still possible for the English tactician to get his men back in the dressing room to regroup. But Salem Al-Dawsari had other ideas.
Once again, Al-Ettifaq will be asking questions of themselves defensively, especially Mohammed Abdulrahman. The right-back first gave the ball away and was then beaten too easily by the Asian player of the year who cut in from the left, advanced toward the near post, and slipped the ball past Victor for his 10th league goal of the season.
The half ended on a high of sorts with Gini Wijnaldum testing Yassine Bounou with a shot from outside the area.
Al-Ettifaq tried their utmost after the break but still struggled to create clear chances.
The game was almost settled just after the hour as Milinkovic-Savic whipped in a wicked shot from 20 meters out which beat Victor but came back off the inside of the post and, despite the best efforts of Malcom, eventually out to safety.
With eight minutes remaining, Al-Ettifaq came close to making it a very interesting final stage. Karl Toko-Ekambi advanced toward the Al-Hilal box and, flanked by blue shirts, sent a low shot from the right side that rolled just past the post.
With it went the home team’s chances of getting anything from the game and, in fact, the Blues looked likelier to get a third with Michael coming close in the final seconds.
In the end, Al-Hilal had to settle for 2-0 while Al-Ettifaq, who stay in eighth, and coach Gerrard know that there should be easier tasks ahead.
Right now, it would seem no team can stop Al-Hilal.