The residual impact of the King’s Cup should be profoundly felt when round 26 kicks off in the Saudi Professional League.
Stirring comebacks from relegation-threatened Al Ittihad and wayward champions Al Hilal will be fresh in the memory. Elsewhere, a campaign of rare promise is unfolding at Al Taawoun.
Here are the major talking points:
TWIST OF FATE
A disastrous week appeared to have, somehow, taken a turn for the worse when Al Ittihad found themselves 2-0 down to minnows Al Batin in Monday’s King’s Cup quarter-final.
Harrowing memories would have been fresh from the previous Friday’s capitulation from 2-0 ahead against Al Faisaly, with the eventual 3-2 defeat denying this historical giant a first escape from the relegation places in 2018/19.
Another distressing defeat would have been too much, surely, to handle for a club whose confidence has received hammer blow after hammer blow.
Instead, a remarkable rally ended in an eventual 4-3 victory and a berth in the semi-finals for the holders.
Attackers Romarinho and Aleksandar Prijovic must continue to be pivotal figures for Jose Luis Sierra when they play Batin, this time in the top flight, on Friday.
The former made the most of Garry Rodrigues’ late withdrawal against Batin, netting the clincher. Serbia striker Prijovic also got a brace, halting a two-match scoreless streak.
They’ve made it to the play-off spot. The serenity of safety is, tantalisingly, close.
Hopes of Hilal regaining top spot in this round can be filed away as ‘highly optimistic’.
New leaders Al Nassr – courtesy of last weekend’s rousing derby beating of the Crescent – will surely make it eight SPL triumphs on the spin when they travel to mid-table Al Raed on Thursday.
Instead, the mission for Hilal is to keep the gap at one point and apply pressure on the same night at 11th-placed Al Hazem.
It is difficult to gauge the mood in boss Zoran Mamic’s ranks. A depleted side were put through the ringer at Ettifaq on Monday, making it 2-2 deep into second-half injury time through centre-back – who else? – Mohammed Jahfali’s towering header and then finally going ahead through Peru winger Andre Carrillo’s rebound in the 105th minute.
They either prevailed, in trying circumstance, without the likes of Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo and tired France striker Bafetimbi Gomis, or scraped through a manic match.
How they weather the suspension of centre midfielder Mohammed Kanno will be a key determinant of the Hilal’s hordes’ happiness.
Everything is coming together nicely for 2018/19’s surprise package.
Last term, Taawoun finished a forgettable seventh in the top flight and exited the King’s Cup at the round of 32 to opponents drawn from Prince Mohammad bin Salman League.
Fast forward 12 months and Tuesday’s 3-0 thumping of Al Wehda has reinforced an image as a team to fear in the semi-finals. If results fall their way in the SPL, with third-placed Al Shabab Riyadh hosting Al Ahli Jeddah on Friday and Taawoun meeting second-bottom Al Fayha on Saturday, then a gatecrashing of the 2020 AFC Champions League spots will occur.
They rival pacesetters Nassr for experiencing the greatest transformation under the eight-player foreign quota.
But, in contrast, their smartest pick-ups – such as 19-goal Cameroon striker Leandre Tawamba and steady Brazil goalkeeper Cassio – were not procured at exorbitant cost.
At a time when the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s technical committee has highlighted continued financial folly by many of the Kingdom’s clubs, Taawoun stand apart.
Peru winger Andre Carrillo emerged as the extra-time hero when his rebound earned a rollicking 3-2 King’s Cup quarter-final win at Ettifaq and ended Al Hilal’s mini-slump.
Zoran Mamic’s relieved visitors to Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium had also required a towering 95th-minute header from Saudi Arabia centre-back Mohammed Jahfali to avoid defeat in normal time.
A first-half penalty from wide man Mohammed Al Kuwaykibi and Argentine forward Cristian Guanca’s low 87th-minute finish had twice given Ettifaq the lead, with veteran midfielder Mohammad Al Shalhoub’s 25-yard free-kick past the hour mark previously making it 1-1. The stage was then set for Carrillo, who reacted quickest to right-back Yasser Al Shahrani’s saved stinger in the 105th minute.
UP FOR THE CUP
Such was the intensity of end-to-end action in this undulating, electrifying tie, it felt like watching tennis.
A ridiculous 29 attempts were registered by Hilal, while Ettifaq did their bit with 20.
Remarkably, this mania was not a one-off in games between the clubs. November’s 4-1 victory for Hilal in the Saudi Professional League contained a combined 30 attempts on goal, in 90 minutes.
RESPITE FOR MAMIC
The walls were continuing to close in on Hilal boss Zoran Mamic.
Jahfali’s last-gasp intervention then prevented a third-successive winless match, in all competitions. Carrillo’s clincher later exorcised a modicum of pain from Friday’s Riyadh derby loss to Al Nassr that saw a long-term lead in the Saudi Professional League surrendered.
Mamic will be a relieved man. He fielded a depleted side as injury and fixture intensity bit.
A repeat of the second-half switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation eventually came up trumps, unlike at Nassr.
There is much to admire about mid-table Ettifaq’s approach.
They put faith in exciting young Saudi talents, like wingers Abdulrahman Al Aboud and Al Kuwaykibi. They also regularly pick out unheralded foreign gems – Colon loanee Guanca now has 15 goals in 26 run-outs.
They, agonisingly, camp up short on Monday night. But their strategy remains solid.
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.
Never two without three!— AlNassr FC (@AlNassrFC_EN) March 29, 2019
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.
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.