RIYADH: It was another huge weekend in the Saudi Professional League with the picture at the top and bottom of the table getting a little clearer as we enter the final stages of the season. And it seems Al-Ittihad are still heading toward a first title win since 2009.
Here are five things we learned from the latest action
1. Al-Ittihad don’t look like choking
The 2-0 win over Al-Shabab was a classic top-of-the-table clash and a huge game. Al-Ittihad’s impressive run had taken them clear but the narrow loss to Al-Hilal last week was a big blow. If they had then lost or even dropped points against Al-Shabab, then the chasing pack would have taken huge heart from that and who knows what it would have done to the dressing room in Jeddah.
But a first title since 2009 is still very much on. In the absence of Abderrazzak Hamdallah, coach Cosmin Contra paired Romarinho and Haroune Camara together in attack and their movement, energy and work rate caused plenty of problems. There were some hairy moments at the back but in a game that Al-Shabab, playing at home, were desperate to win, they piled on the pressure late in the contest but the Tigers held firm. A goal late in the first half was followed by another early in the second to produce a fine win.
Even better was the late return of Igor Coronado off the bench after a long injury lay-off. Make no mistake this was a big win as the celebrations at the end showed. They have 57 points from 24 games, 11 clear of Al-Hilal who have two more to play. The finish line is getting closer.
2. Al-Hilal are mounting a spirited defense
The champions are not giving up their trophy easily and needed a late goal to defeat Al-Raed 1-0. It makes it five wins from five in the league under the new boss Ramon Diaz although this win was harder work than most. With two minutes of normal time remaining, it was goalless in Riyadh and such is Al-Ittihad’s lead at the top that Al-Hilal know they can’t afford to drop points.
Then up popped Moussa Marega. The Malian has not made that many headlines since arriving from FC Porto last year but has been a fine addition in attack. Even though he has sometimes found himself playing second fiddle to Bafetimbi Gomis and then Odion Ighalo, he has always worked hard for the team and has also chipped in with a valuable 10 goals. The latest was the most important. Given just a small amount of space in a crowded area, Marega lashed the ball high into the net from a relatively tight angle. It was not the first late winner from Al-Hilal this season and another sign that they will keep going to the end of games and until the end of the season.
3. A quiet Talisca leaves Al-Nassr out of the running
Usually, coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 away from home would be a cause for celebration. Yet so unforgiving is this title race this season, with Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal winning what feels like every game, Al-Nassr need to do the same but their slim hopes of title number 10 fizzled out in Dammam on Friday. It leaves the Yellows in fourth, 12 points behind the leaders with just six games remaining. Now it is all about finishing as high as possible.
Al-Ettifaq look to have turned a corner after a bad run under new coach Patrice Carteron and so were always going to be difficult opposition for the visitors and so it proved. It was a spirited first half performance from the hosts who took the game to Al-Nassr and caused problems. It was a different story after the break as Al-Nassr regrouped and started to show their class. A fine free-kick from Pity Martinez earned the point, though it’s unlikely that will now prove enough in the title race.
There is some concern that Talisca, who had been top scorer in the league, has not scored in his last four games. It is no coincidence that points have been dropped during that time. There is plenty of attacking talent but soon it will be time to start focusing on next season.
4. Al-Shabab need to win the big games
Losing 2-0 to Al-Ittihad ended Al-Shabab’s title hopes but that was no surprise. The points gap was already looking too big, but there is more. Last season, the team were locked in a title battle with Al-Hilal but lost the decisive clash 5-1. Something similar has happened this time around. Last month, there was another massive game against their Riyadh rivals. It ended in a 5-0 thrashing. When Al-Hilal need a big result they usually manage to get one, but Al-Shabab don’t yet have that ability. When the pressure is really on, they seem to lack a little belief.
The departure of Odion Ighalo to rivals Al-Hilal in January was a real blow. It was not just that the Nigerian was the top scorer in the league and his goals have been missed, but it was more a symbolic moment. When the pressure is on, teams like Al-Hilal take the best players from the others and win the big games. Al-Shabab need to break out of that narrative.
5. Al-Ahli almost break free but the relegation battle is red hot
Just as Al-Ahli wanted, the arrival of a new coach has made a difference. Under Robert Siboldi, the team produced a vital 3-1 win over Al-Tai with Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah rediscovering his scoring touch with two goals. The Jeddah giants are only four points above the relegation zone but with six teams below them, they should be okay.
It is still tight, however. There are just four points that separate the teams from 11th to 15th and two of those are going down. With many clubs changing coaches in recent weeks in a bid to get those vital points, it is going to go all the way down to the wire. Al-Taawoun, Al-Faisaly and Al-Ettifaq are capable of getting a result against any team and that is why, for the neutral at least, the battle at the bottom half of the table is going to be an exciting one.
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