RIYADH: 2022 came to an end with plenty of Saudi Professional League action and here are five things we learned at Arab News.
Ronaldo comes to the league leaders
Al-Nassr won 1-0 at struggling Al-Khaleej to end 2022 as the league leaders, and sit a point above Al-Shabab who have played one game fewer.
The headlines did not focus too much on the fifth-minute decisive strike from Vincent Aboubaker, a fine diving header from one of the league’s top strikers, that won the game.
All the talk was of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. There is going to be plenty more of that in the coming days, weeks and months.
It could be that the Portuguese star, always fit and ready to go, plays his first club game outside Europe on Thursday at home to Al-Tai.
There is going to be a big crowd to welcome one of the best players in the history of the game.
It remains to be seen how the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star will fit into the side but there is no doubt that he is joining a team who have what it takes to lift the title.
Rivals in the race will be looking on with trepidation and wondering what a forward who scored 18 goals in the English Premier League last season can do in Saudi Arabia.
It is going to be quite a ride.
Sloppy Al-Hilal slip up
While winning the title last season, there were numerous occasions when Al-Hilal won games and points at the death, with their never-say-die attitude truly impressive.
However, in the 2-2 draw at Damac, the opposite happened.
It started so well. The champions pushed forward from the get-go and Odion Ighalo slotted home a deserved opener seven minutes before the break.
Luciano Vietto doubled the lead from the shortest of ranges and the points looked to be in the bag. Even when Abdulelah Al-Shammry pulled a goal back with 15 minutes remaining, there seemed no need to panic.
Then two things happened. World Cup hero Saleh Al-Shehri first missed one of the easiest chances he will ever have, failing to score when just inches out, and then in injury time, goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf spilled the ball and it fell to Abdulaziz Al-Shahrani who earned Damac a point. The champions had been denied, and reminded that, in this league, mistakes are punished.
Grohe saves Al-Ittihad
Al-Ittihad picked up a 2-1 win at Abha and, as expected against a team who had won their previous five games, it was a difficult and hard-fought encounter, but one that showed their fighting spirit.
Abderrazak Hamdallah was again on the scoresheet with an opportunistic opening goal just after 20 minutes, and when Romarinho made it two early in the second half from close range, it looked like game over, especially as, under coach Nuno Santo, the Jeddah giants had conceded just two goals in nine league games.
But then Abha, in front of a big crowd in the sunshine, came back. Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe saved a penalty which, had it gone in, would have helped earn Abha a draw as they netted 18 minutes from time through Saleh Al-Amri.
As it was, the Tigers came away with the win. Others in this star-studded team often get the headlines, but this time plaudits should be given to the goalkeeper who saved his team two points.
Al-Shabab bounce back
The 3-0 over Ettifaq restored, for 24 hours at least, Al-Shabab’s place at the top of the table, but more importantly it was a much-needed return to winning ways.
The 4-1 defeat at the hands of Al-Fateh on the resumption of league action last week was a surprise for a team that had conceded just twice in the previous eight games.
It was crucial then that Vicente Moreno’s men bounced back immediately and did not let a blip become a wobble. And they did just that against an Ettifaq side that had conceded only six goals before meeting Al-Shabab.
In the rain of Riyadh, the hosts could have won by more, and did not look in danger once Santi Mina put them ahead midway through the first half.
Iago Santos was left at the far post at a corner just before the break and that was that, apart from a late own goal.
This was a case of the result being more important than the performance, but both were exactly what Al-Shabab needed.
Title race shaping up nicely
Al-Hilal’s slip-up means that they drop down to fifth, but they are just four points behind leaders and rivals Al-Nassr.
No one who remembers how the champions clawed back a double-digit deficit last season will be counting them out at this early stage; anything could happen.
While it is unlikely that Al-Taawoun, currently going well in fourth after an exciting 3-2 win at Al-Raed, will be able to stay the course and top the table at the end of the season, the other four of the top five all have genuine ambitions to lift the trophy.
As ever, mentality will be just as important as ability on the pitch. Al-Hilal have been here many times before and have the strongest squad, but both Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad are desperate for the title after years without the honor, and look very good indeed.
Al-Nassr are top and have the arrival of a certain megastar to boost their ranks. The title race is shaping up to be another roller coaster.
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