Al Nassr power surge and Al Hilal momentum loss under Zoran Mamic key in SPL title race

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(epa).

Brazil centre-back Bruno Uvini’s 97th-minute header earned a dramatic 3-2 Riyadh derby triumph for Al Nassr against 10-man rivals Al Hilal and flipped the Saudi Professional League’s title race on its head.

A consequential clash in front of nearly 60,000 fevered supporters at King Fahd International Stadium came to life in the second half when prolific Morocco hit man Abderazzak Hamdallah nodded home a 22nd goal in 13 matches during 2019. Saudi Arabia centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi, however, soon looped in from a corner to level up for the long-term leaders.

A handball from powerhouse midfielder Mohammed Kanno would necessitate his costly 67th-minute dismissal for a second booking. Uvini’s header, from another set-piece, then crept under Oman veteran Ali Al Habsi 10 minutes later to ramp up the pressure on Hilal, who never-the-less equalised in some style through winger Salem Al Dawsari’s artful dribble and goal-line finish.

With the contest seemingly headed for a stalemate, Uvini rose highest to head back across goal and write his name into Nassr folklore. This result gifted ex-Benfica head coach Rui Vitoria’s side a one-point advantage with five games to play, while ending Hilal’s lengthy stint at the top stretching back to round eight.

NASSR’S POWER SURGE

It took until deep into injury time for Nassr’s dominance to, decisively, tell.

And in both derbies this term, they’ve benefited from red cards. In most metrics, however, Friday’s result was fully merited.

Vitoria masterminded an imperious home performance in which in-form Nassr enjoyed more attempts (16/6), possession (57/43 per cent), dispossessions (20/17) and interceptions (nine/six). Vitally, in a contest that featured four headed goals out of five scored, they also led the way with crosses (38/12).

A spine that contained Brazilians Maicon, Uvini and Petros added reinforced steel. In front of this, the likes of reintegrated Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa and ceaseless Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat allied work-rate with attacking acumen.

Their ascendancy after a first half of few chances was no accident. Just reward came through a seventh-successive top-flight victory.

November’s dismissal of Uruguay’s Daniel Carreno appeared capricious. Now, it looks inspired.

MAMIC’S LOSS OF MOMENTUM

The contrast to flagging Hilal was marked.

After two-successive draws, a first SPL loss can be added to coach Zoran Mamic’s results column.

When the former Croatia international was poached from Al Ain in late January, a six-point lead was his inheritance from Jorge Jesus. In three winless matches, this has devolved into a one-point deficit.

Ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis was subdued on Friday and had to come off through injury. That’s now one goal in his last eight run-outs.

Australia international Milos Degenek, unsurprisingly, floundered in an unfamiliar defensive-midfield role.

Serious injuries to influential Saudi stars Salman Al Faraj and Abdullah Otayf continues to deny Hilal’s engine room of essential fuel.

Was this slowdown an accident waiting to happen from a club top-heavy in talent? Hilal’s squad depth is failing a stress test as fixtures pile up in three competitions.

THE FUTURE

Victory for Nassr is made more momentous by a study of what is to come.

A trio of their remaining SPL outings will be played at home. This situation is flipped for Hilal. Four of Nassr’s opponents reside in the bottom half of the table. A fifth, Al Fateh, are eighth.

For Hilal, just two can be found in the lower reaches. They next play Al Hazem on April 4, a club who defeated them 2-1 in December.

Games with Al Taawoun, Al Ahli Jeddah and a final-day derby with Al Shabab Riyadh illustrate how strenuous their remaining run to a third-successive success will be.

Confidence is not misplaced that Nassr’s four-season title drought is about to end.

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Talking points ahead of a Riyadh derby for the ages between Al Nassr and Al Hilal

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(Twitter/@Alhilal_EN).

Few games across the globe can rival the ferocity and intensity on show this weekend in a Riyadh derby between champions Al Hilal and chasers Al Nassr that may decide this season’s Saudi Professional League.

Last weekend’s shock goalless draw against bottom-placed Ohod by the holders has placed their capital rivals within striking distance. Victory for Rui Vitoria’s hosts at the 68,752-capacity King Fahd International Stadium will see them steal top spot for the first time since November.

Here are the talking points ahead of a pivotal match:

RIYADH RETURNS

AC Milan v Inter Milan, Boca Juniors v River Plate, Celtic v Glasgow Rangers.

All lay claim to boosting football’s greatest rivalry.

In the Arabic world, only Cairo’s Al Ahly v Zamalek can come close to matching Friday’s gladiatorial contest.

Dark blue and vibrant yellow will compete to colour the night at sold-out King Fahd, while partisan support is guaranteed from the electrified stands.

This is not a derby that requires stoking up. Hilal’s draws against Al Wehda and Ohod after new coach Zoran Mamic stormed to victory in his first five top-flight matches in charge have, however, thrown fresh kindling on the fire.

Recent history supports the pacesetters. They have lost just two of the last 12 meetings versus Nassr, winning seven and drawing three.

Stalemates have been recorded in the last two clashes. Nassr struck twice in five second-half minutes to earn a memorable 2-2 draw against 10-man Hilal when the clubs met in December.

A third-successive one – in both the SPL and derby – would, in theory, be welcomed by Hilal. But sensibilities are ignored in such heated games.

In the opposite corner, Nassr must go for the jugular and press home a momentum shift with only five top-flight games remaining after the final whistle if they are to triumph for the first time since 2014/15.

This Riyadh derby should be one for the ages.

CALLING OUT FOR CARLOS

Even a galaxy of stars needs a sun to orbit around.

For Hilal, that centrifugal figure is, unquestionably, Brazilian attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo. His return to training this week was the perfect fillip for deflated fans.

For all the timeless quality that 38-year-old Mohammad Al Shalhoub possesses, plus the ingenuity of Italy’s Sebastian Giovinco, a sense of control and purpose was glaring in the staggering stalemate with Ohod. Of Hilal’s 20 attempts on goal, only three were registered by their chance-starved leading marksman Bafetimbi Gomis.

Eduardo is also not just a conductor. His 15 strikes in all competitions makes him, comfortably, second-top scorer for Hilal this term.

Without him, a major weapon was missing to breach dogged Ohod’s rearguard.

Eduardo’s unflinching finishing was exhibited in this fixture last term when he sunk a 64th-minute penalty on enemy territory to earn a valuable 2-1 triumph.

His renewed availability will boost Hilal and unsettle buoyant Nassr.

HOW CAN YOU STOP HAMDALLAH?

Abderazzak Hamdallah has truly launched himself into an exclusive club in 2019.

The bullocking Nassr centre forward’s quartet against Al Wehda last time out made it 21 goals in 12 matches, in all competitions, since the turn of the year. It also moved him top of the SPL scoring charts, two in front of Al Taawoun sensation Leandre Tawamba and four ahead of Hilal hero Gomis.

This makes his average minutes per goal for this period a, frankly, preposterous 50.9.

Hamdallah’s raw physicality is likely to see Hilal boss Mamic opt at centre-back for both Australia’s Milos Degenek and Barcelona youth product Alberto Botia. Saudi Arabia’s Ali Al Bulaihi could also be added into the mixture, repeating February’s profitable experimentation with a five-man defence witnessed at Al Ittihad.

This, however, could be too simple a solution.

Emerging right-back Sultan Al Ghanam has produced assists in his last two top-flight run-outs and will revel in space vacated by wing-backs.

There is plenty for boss Mamic to ponder.

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Christian Wilhelmsson on 'unexpected' Al Hilal adventure, Al Shalhoub and need for ACL 'luck'

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Rewind a decade and Al Hilal’s right wing was lit up by a dash of blond.

Christian Wilhelmsson was produced by Sweden, but discovered his footballing home in Saudi Arabia.

A nomadic career had taken him to seven different clubs in seven different countries – a list that includes Belgium’s Anderlecht, France’s Nantes, Italy’s Roma and England’s Bolton Wanderers – from 1997. That is, until an “unexpected call” arrived in August 2008.

Few Europeans then made such an intrepid switch. Let alone pillars of their national sides.

Wilhelmsson would, however, not look back during four trophy-laden years – minus a short spell on loan at Qatar’s Al Ahli Doha in 2011/12.

Alongside the likes of Brazil playmaker Thiago Neves and Saudi Arabia icon Mohammad Al Shalhoub, he lifted ‘double doubles’ of the Saudi Professional League and exalted Saudi Crown Prince Cup between 2009-11. There was also 2009/10’s crowning glory when nine goals and 10 assists in the top flight saw him honoured with the Player of the Year gong.

When asked to reflect on this golden spell in a career that eventually encompassed 79 caps and four major finals appearance for his country, Wilhelmsson’s enduring gratitude shines through.

“That was an unexpected call that I got,” the now 39-year-old tells Sport360. “First of all, I had a discussion with my wife and told her this is where we might move.

“We, of course, had a conversation about this. Second, I had a discussion with the [Sweden] national team coach [Lars Lagerback] to see the possibility to still play for them if I made the move over there.

“I didn’t know that much [about Hilal], more than that they had two big profiles [players]. This was Sami Al Jaber and Mohamed Al Deayea.

“It was a very different journey and adventure to join a club in the Middle East.

“The way it all turned out, I am very grateful. I think the club had a big impact.”

A buzz returned to the Saudi Arabian game last summer when the generous largesse of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was allied with his bold Saudi Vision 2030.

Hilal’s ranks, alone, have been bolstered by France striker Bafetimbi Gomis, Italy forward Sebastian Giovinco and Australia centre-back Milos Degenek.

This group currently sits top of their SPL and 2019 AFC Champions League tables. Tangible success, however awaits.

Wilhelmsson can bask in multiple glories earned through his endeavours, plus those of fellow foreigners like seven-cap Neves and revered Romania anchor man Mirel Radoi.

Never mind a talented Saudi spine that contained maverick forward Yasser Al Qahtani, refined midfielder Al Shalhoub, dedicated centre-back Osama Hawsawi and lionised, 178-cap ‘keeper Al Deayea.

He was, further, guided by several eulogised head coaches. Men of gravitas like Cosmin Olaroiu and Eric Gerets.

He says: “I would say we had a fantastic team, with Thiago Neves and Mirel Radoi also being there.

“We were like a big family. That spirit made sure every player enjoyed being there.

“Hilal is great in that matter. They deal with the players arriving, taking care of them and making them feel at home.

“Half of the guys [in the dressing room] spoke English. That was not a big issue.

“There are a lot of funny memories, but they are hard to talk about in an interview. There were always funny episodes, on a daily basis I was usually part of the joke.”

Mohammad Al Shalhoub (l) and Christian Wilhelmsson (r).

Mohammad Al Shalhoub (l) and Christian Wilhelmsson (r).

Wilhelmsson also had front-row seats for the evolution of some special Saudi talents.

Centre midfielder Salman Al Faraj and winger Salem Al Dawsari – match-winner at World Cup 2018 against Egypt – were colts around the first team. Attacking midfielder Nawaf Al Abed was cruelly denied a ticket to last summer’s Russian festivities through injury, but debuted to acclaim when the Swede was present.

“They all started to practice while I was there and play with the first team,” Wilhelmsson says.

“I was surprised, of course. I did not know the skill set of the players over there.

“Those players were special. They showed it and have established themselves as stars.”

A special place in Wilhelmsson’s affections is reserved for the demonstrative Al Shalhoub, someone he affectionately recalls as having “one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met”.

Remarkably, the diminutive, one-club attacking midfielder still remains a key cog for Hilal at 38-years old. This is more than 20 years since his first-team bow.

“That is one of the biggest memories that I have from Saudi,” Wilhelmsson states. “To play with someone like Al Shalhoub, who has one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met – both on the pitch and outside the field.

“He is a great guy and a good friend. He is an amazing footballer, it makes me so pleased to still see him performing at that level.”

The aspirations of the current vanguard face an acid test on Friday. A fervid Riyadh derby awaits at King Fahd International Stadium against Al Nassr, with only two points separating champions Hilal from their determined chasers.

Wilhelmsson says: “There was also a special game against Al Nassr for the derby. The atmosphere was amazing and the passion for football in the country was amazing.

“Those games really built up and you could almost touch the tension before the games. I was really surprised about it and didn’t know about the passion they have for football over there.”

Domestic supremacy is an accepted norm for record 15-time top-flight champions Hilal. A desperation, however, has set in about ending a 19-year wait for continental glory.

Near misses in 2014 and 2017’s finals have exacerbated their anxiousness. Lauded Portuguese tactician Jorge Jesus was also jettisoned in late January for Croatia’s Zoran Mamic when he could not commit to the entire 2019 AFC Champions League campaign.

Wilhelmsson was convinced it is only “a matter of time” until this hunger is sated.

He says: “They have been so close in previous years. They are always in the top-four favourites to win the Champions League.

“I think it is a matter of time until they have that bit of extra luck to go all the way.”

The grateful Wilhelmsson was no mercenary, looking to swiftly enrich himself in the Kingdom and then leave. An indelible mark was left by his four-year Saudi experience.

He departed Hilal as a club legend in summer 2012. Stints would follow at United States’ LA Galaxy, UAE’s Bani Yas and back where it started at Sweden’s Mjallby before retirement was confirmed four years ago.

Dubai is now both home and the base for his Star Agency. Fittingly, its mission statement is about “bridging the gap between the Middle East and International sports”.

He says: “I am still living and working in Dubai. Almost every second week, I am heading to Saudi and working on several different things.

“We want to improve different areas, in both Saudi and the UAE.

“They have done so much for me; the club, the league and the country. To be able to contribute again and help them work in the right direction is a great opportunity.”

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