Saudi Professional League: Al Nassr and Al Ittihad look to rebound after their ACL disasters

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A pair of giants will be otherwise engaged this weekend when the Saudi Professional League kicks back into gear, but there is still plenty of intrigue to be found elsewhere.

Leaders Al Hilal and floundering Al Ahli Jeddah’s matches have been postponed because of Saturday’s semi-final, first-leg commitments in the Zayed Champions Cup.

This means second-placed Al Nassr could ramp up the pressure and close the gap at the top to just one point. Just like Al Ittihad at the other end of the table, however, they’ll need to rebound immediately after woeful 2019 AFC Champions League performances in midweek.

Here are the talking points for a – truncated – round 24:

TESTING NASSR’S NERVE

As warm-ups for a crucial weekend of domestic action go, Monday’s 3-2 defeat for Nassr against Iran’s Zob Ahan was not ideal – to put it mildly.

The continental competition has now twice punctured momentum built up during a six-match winning run in the SPL. These domestic results under ex-Benfica boss Rui Vitoria have come at a crucial time, as Riyadh rivals Hilal have not been able to race away despite their seamless transition from Jorge Jesus to Zoran Mamic.

Simple errors will worry Vitoria. All three goals conceded were scrappy, with the usual steel nerves of striker Abderrazak Hamdallah also deserting him when he could not convert a second penalty-kick of the night.

An invaluable opportunity now awaits them to ramp up the pressure on Hilal when they meet an Al Wehda who’ve won just one of their last four fixtures.

But if their belief betrays them once again, the title race could, effectively, be run by mid-March.

CASES FOR THE DEFENCE

A quartet of ACL matches for the Saudi contingent generated just one win for Hilal – in impressive fashion against Qatar’s Al Duhail – and three defeats.

Ittihad were the worst offenders, going down 4-1 at the UAE’s incurably inconsistent Al Wahda. This opening reversal in four games under the returned Jose Luis Sierra cannot be allowed to infect their SPL fortunes.

Last weekend, other results ensured even a fortifying 2-0 win against Al Fayha was not enough to escape the drop zone for the first time this term.

Unlike so often under the frustrating Slaven Bilic, however, the Tigers that day took the fight to fellow strugglers.  A dominant 63-per-cent possession and 16 attempts on goal allowed their superior quality to, belatedly, show.

Key winter addition Aleksandar Prijovic broke his duck at the fifth attempt with a brace and Morocco centre-back Manuel Da Costa was a rock. Both have rested up after not being registered for Asia.

Al Hazem, only two spots higher in 12th, await on Saturday.

With the bottom two of Ohod and Fayha inactive, plus lowly Batin and Al Raed also meeting, serious ground could be made up. Ittihad cannot let this opportunity slip.

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