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Glory for Al-Hilal as win over Al-Faisaly secures third Saudi Pro League title in row

RIYADH: Al-Hilal have been crowned champions of Saudi Arabia for a record-extending 18th time  after defeating Al-Faisaly 2-1 in Riyadh on Monday night to finish two points at the top of the table above rivals Al-Ittihad who were held to a 0-0 draw by Al-Batin. 

Two goals from the league’s leading scorer Odion Ighalo gave coach Ramon Diaz’s team an 11th win from the last 12 games and top spot for the third successive season, a campaign which is the longest ever after starting in mid-August 2021. It is a fantastic achievement for the Asian champions as they were 16 points behind Al-Ittihad in February when coach Ramon Diaz took over. 

Ighalo’s 22nd goal of the season after just seven minutes took the early nerves out of the occasion at the King Fahd International Stadium. The former Manchester United striker turned and fired home from close range after a smart pull-back from Brazil’s Michael. The second strike, which came four minutes after the hour, was similar. Michael beat two defenders on the right and squared the ball to Ighalo who swept home.

The game, and the title race, seemed to be all over but with 20 minutes remaining, the visitors silenced the celebrating home crowd with substitute Clayson arriving late to send a powerful header past Abdullah Al-Mayouf after a perfect Khalid Al-Kabi cross from  the right side. Suddenly there was tension among the home fans as Al-Faisaly, needing a result to guarantee top tier football next season, pushed forward in search of a potentially decisive point. 

The closest the men from Dammam came was deep into injury time when a shot from Tavares was cleared off the line, by a hand, claimed the visitors. This has been a season with plenty of last-minute drama and hearts were in mouths as Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos went to the pitchside monitor. He waved away the desperate appeals and though the players did not know it, Al-Faisaly’s top flight status was already safe.  After 10 minutes of added time, it was all over. It was a frantic end to a frantic season and the celebrations reflected the champion’s relief and the delight at one of their more unlikely title triumphs.

Al-Hilal’s victory meant that, as they had the better head-to-head record against their challengers, that there was nothing Al-Ittihad could do down in Jeddah. The goalless draw with Al-Batin was, however, a disappointing end to a campaign that had promised so much.

The Tigers dropped 13 points in the final eight games, a run that cost them what would have been a first title since 2009. Al-Ittihad huffed and puffed against Al-Batin, who now drop to the second tier but were unable to break the deadlock in the first half. 

It was a terrible night all round for Jeddah as 2016 champions Al-Ahli were relegated to the second tier for the first time ever. A 0-0 draw against fourth place Al-Shabab condemned the 2012 Asian Champions League finalists to the drop.

That meant that Al-Ahli, Al-Batin and Al-Hazm are all relegated but it was a tense 90 minutes at the bottom half of the table with seven teams in with a chance of the drop going into the final game. 

Al-Taawoun ensured their survival with a 1-1 draw at Damac, who finish in fifth, while Al-Tai confirmed safety with a 3-0 win over Al-Hazm, a third victory in four games. Al-Raed defeated Abha 1-0, a result that preserves the top flight status of both teams, while Ettifaq are also safe thanks to a 1-0 win at Al-Feiha.

Elsewhere, Al-Nassr ended their season in third after a 2-1 win over Al-Fateh but it was elsewhere in Riyadh where the strains of “We Are The Champions” could be heard.

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