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5 things learned as Al-Hilal continue stunning pursuit of Al-Ittihad in Saudi Pro League title race

RIYADH: The unthinkable has happened, with once runaway leaders Al-Ittihad being reeled in by reigning champions Al-Hilal. Round 28 out of 30 in the Saudi Professional League season was a stunner and means that fans are in for a real treat when the campaign resumes in June.

1. Al-Hilal now the favorites

There has been an amazing turnaround at the top. In less than a week, Al-Hilal have reduced Al-Ittihad’s lead from six points to none. They also share the same goal difference.

On Sunday, the defending champions defeated Abha 2-0. Both the goals came in the second half with center-back Ali Al-Bulaihi opening the scoring 10 minutes after the break and Odion Ighalo, a much more regular goal scorer, sealing the win 10 minutes from the end.

At this stage of the season, it is not about performances but just about getting the points on the board. This was the kind of game that will not be remembered too long by fans except for the fact that it finally closed the gap. Now Al-Hilal have the momentum.

The loss to Al-Feiha at the start of May looked to have ended their title hopes but four straight wins since, including the victory over Al-Ittihad last week, means that the momentum is in Riyadh. Despite the schedule and the injuries, they are now favorites.

2. Al-Ittihad stumble once more

The leaders lost 1-0 at relegation battlers Al-Tai, who now look safe from the drop, but the headlines will be focused on how the team from Jeddah are close to throwing away what would be a first title win since 2009.

It was all looking fine a short while ago but just one point from the last three games has thrown everything up in the air.

This was not a smash-and-grab win from the hosts. Al-Ittihad struggled to get going and caused coach Cosmin Contra to call it the worst performance he had seen since taking over at the start of the season.

The Tigers should have taken the lead midway through the first half. A blistering shot from outside the area from Abdulaziz Al-Bishi was saved and the rebound came out to Muhannad Al-Shanqeeti, but his effort came back off the post. Then five minutes into the second-half, Amir Sayoud broke free and his low shot sent the home fans wild.

The worried looks from Contra and all those on the sidelines said it all. Al-Ittihad have forgotten how to win just as the trophy was in touching distance and they now have over two weeks to think about how to get back on track.

3. Relegation battle goes from intense to epic

Al-Hazem became the first team to be relegated last week but the rest of the battle to escape the trapdoor is becoming legendary. Almost the entire bottom half of the table can still feel the heat of the relegation zone. There are just three points that separate Al-Taawoun in 10th and Al-Batin in 15th and two of those six teams are going down. Nobody can predict who it will be.

Many desperate teams are picking up points as the intensity of the fight has moved up a notch. Al-Taawoun looked almost doomed but have now won their last two games. Ettifaq have bounced back under new coach Patrice Carteron. Al-Batin are still in serious trouble but have taken seven points from their last four games and now have a fighting chance. Al-Ahli have drawn their last three but that means they are now unbeaten in three while Al-Tai beat the leaders and look to be safe.

The title race may get most of the headlines, but the bottom half is no place for the faint-hearted.

4. Firas Al-Buraikan flying the flag for locals

It is rare to see a Saudi Arabian striker make the top 10 of goal scorers in the league but with two games of the season remaining, Firas Al-Buraikan is there.

The 22-year-old became frustrated about a lack of playing time at Al-Nassr and a move to Al-Fateh is now looking like an inspired one.

His hat-trick against Damac means that he now has 11 for the season and is in the top 10. This is especially welcome to national team coach Herve Renard. His other striker Saleh Al-Shehri is injured and is unlikely to be back before the summer ends, at best.

Another Al-Hilal forward Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s time on the pitch is stop and start at the club. It puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Al-Buraikan, but on current form, he looks like he can handle it and is starting to thrive. It can only be good news for fans of the national team ahead of the World Cup.

5. International break adds an extra dimension

There are so many talking points as the season enters its last two rounds.

There is the battle for the top three with Al-Nassr hitting form at the right time and are just two points clear of Al-Shabab. When Al-Shabab let Ighalo join Al-Hilal in January, they were above their Riyadh rivals in the table. That is no longer the case, but Al-Shabab have Carlos. The Brazilian scored twice in a vital 2-0 win at Al-Raed and now has 13 for the season. Such goals mean that they are still in the hunt for a top-three finish.

There are also the fortunes of Al-Ahli. The Jeddah giants just cannot pull away from that relegation trapdoor, but the focus is going to be on the title race and while Al-Hilal are now favorites, there is still time for more twists to come.

Now there are no games for almost three weeks and the teams that handle this period best will be rewarded. There is still time for coaches to earn their salaries and get the results that will mean the title or avoiding relegation.

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