Rui Vitoria has reflected warmly on the sizeable mid-season obstacles he cleared to guide Al Nassr to Saudi Professional League success.
The ex-Benfica coach’s charges came into Thursday’s final-day with a slender one-point lead over – then – reigning champions Al Hilal. But it would be the yellow half of Riyadh left to celebrate a first title since 2014/15 after a brace from Morocco predator Abderrazak Hamdallah earned a 2-1 win against relegated Al Batin at a raucous King Fahd International Stadium, making the Crescent’s 3-2 triumph against Al Shabab moot for their hopes.
“I went to Saudi Arabia to do my best, believing that it was possible to win, in a difficult context, mid-season, with a group that had not been prepared by us,” TVI24 were told by Vitoria, who inked an 18-month contract in January after time was called on a trophy laden four-year stint at Estadio da Luz.
“We ended up winning this championship and we were satisfied by that.
“It was hard work, initially with a three-point gap and then six. But we knew what we had to do.
“The special flavour is to win, wherever it is. I’m glad to have this title after four months in the country – this is very gratifying.”
There was also joy for managerless Al Ahli Jeddah when they crept into a play-off spot for the 2020 AFC Champions League in the last round.
Caretaker Yousef Anbar did his bit with a 5-0 thrashing of mid-table Ettifaq, in which Cape Verde striker Djaniny notched a hat-trick.
Shabab had begun the day in third, yet their defeat against Hilal sent them spinning down to fifth. Al Taawoun took their place in the top three with a 2-1 victory against Al Faisaly, though their claiming of the King’s Cup earlier this month meant their continental spot went down to fourth-placed Ahli.
At the bottom, Al Qadsiah were confirmed as the third-and-final automatically relegated outfit with a 2-2 draw at Al Hazem.
This outcome, however, had positive ramifications for Al Fayha. Their 5-2 beating of Al Wehda guaranteed them safety, plus painfully dropped Hazem into the relegation play-off.
The title showdown between Riyadh giants headlines a Saudi Professional League decider laced with interest throughout the division.
After 296 matches across eight months, much remains up for grabs. A solitary point separates leaders Al Nassr – gunning for a first top-flight success since 2014/15 – and holders Al Hilal. This battle, in turn, will have a strong bearing on the race for the remaining 2020 AFC Champions League berth between third-placed Al Shabab, resurgent King’s Cup winners Al Taawoun and managerless Al Ahli Jeddah.
Further down, fallen giants Al Ittihad are, finally, safe from the dreaded drop. Only one of Al Qadsiah, Al Fayha and Al Hazem are guaranteed to feel the same way when the final whistle is blown.
THE KINGDOM’S CROWN
The hard work is done by Nassr, all that’s left is to creep over the line.
For neighbours Hilal, the time has come to pray for an unexpected gift. The contrast in last opponents could not be starker.
Nassr welcome relegated Batin, who they swatted aside 2-0 in October. They have also lost seven of their last eight matches.
Some momentum has been found by Hilal under coach Pericles Chamusca, their third of the campaign. Charged-up Shabab, however, must triumph at King Saud University Stadium to guarantee ACL football for the first time since 2015.
There have been several twists in this tale. Can we expect another?
TAAWOUN’S JUST REWARD?
A dream 2018/19 could yet leave a sour taste for Taawoun.
Little was expected from 2017/18’s seventh-placed club. Under unheralded Al Ain target Pedro Emanuel, however, they have ended a 10-year trophy drought and are close to a second-ever ACL entry.
Taawoun must now swat aside Al Faisaly and hope Hilal down Shabab. If not, last week’s frustrating goalless draw against the aforementioned side will linger throughout the long summer hiatus.
TIGERS CLAW WAY BACK
Disaster has been averted by Ittihad.
There is, however, something still to play for. Jose Luis Sierra’s answering of February’s emergency call sparked a staggering revival that has, thus far, encompassed six wins, one draw and one loss to snatch SPL survival.
A final flourish against bottom-placed Ohod will help show which players deserve to be retained for 2019/20’s climb up the standings.
The Saudi Professional League is braced for consequential clashes at both ends of the table in this weekend’s penultimate round.
Holders Al Hilal’s shock 2-0 reversal against Al Taawoun last Monday ceded control to Riyadh neighbours Al Nassr in the bitter race for the top-flight crown. Both contenders face welcome clashes against lowly opposition, although another slip from the Crescent should be terminal to hopes of success.
At the bottom, 15th-placed Al Batin’s fate may be sealed when they meet relegated Ohod. Setbacks for Al Qadsiah and Al Fayha will make next week’s final day a nervy affair.
Here are the talking points:
STILL TIME FOR A TWIST?
Hilal supporters will be paying peculiar attention to Al Hazem’s fortunes this Friday.
The SPL’s fifth-worst side may hold the key to the addition of a record-extending 16th title. They welcome Nassr to Al Hazem Club Stadium – and this is no dead rubber for the hosts.
An uncomfortable advantage of two points separates them from Al Fayha, who reside in the relegation play-off position. With their opponents off to play mid-table Al Raed, a valuable victory to catapult them to safety cannot be discounted.
Recent history, however, should leave the Hilal faithful – and temporary boss Pericles Chamusca – unsettled.
In October’s previous meeting, a brace from Brazil creator Giuliano helped earn a dominant 5-1 triumph.
The same player was also at his inspirational best on Tuesday, notching a goal and assist, when progression to the 2019 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 was earned with a 3-1 beating of Al Wasl.
Hilal play Ettifaq a day later, repeating one of this season’s most-electrifying clashes.
In a King’s Cup quarter-final for the ages, the exalted visitors from Riyadh twice went behind prior to a towering header deep into second-half injury time from Saudi Arabia centre-back Mohammed Jahfali that earned extra time.
Peru winger Andre Carillo was then alert in the 105th minute to salvage the day – little good that it ultimately did thanks to the historic 5-0 humiliation to Taawoun in the semis.
Both title chasers should triumph in the coming days. But a seventh – and potentially decisive – change of the lead cannot be discounted, either.
Intrigue and entertainment awaits.
Hope could prove ephemeral for Batin.
Last month’s snapping of a five-match losing streak at fellow strugglers Qadsiah has provided the slimmest of hopes. They have to double up against Ohod – something they’ve failed to do since January – to stand any chance of survival.
Qadsiah face a seventh-placed Wehda who’ve clocked off for the season early, after two-successive losses. Fayha will fancy their chances versus Raed and Hazem will surely be downed by Nassr.
This then leaves Al Ittihad. The fallen giant rebounded forcefully from King’s Cup final defeat to beat Qatar’s Al Rayyan in midweek, making it seven triumphs from their last nine matches in all competitions.
Defeat Al Fateh and the ‘Great Escape’ is all-but-done by Jose Luis Sierra.