In the end, Riyadh and the Saudi Professional League were painted vibrant yellow.
Al Nassr belied four years of institutional tumult and underachievement to pip neighbours Al Hilal to the 2018/19 crown. After 30 engaging rounds, only one point separated the capital rivals.
But how did Al A’alamy – The Global, a nickname which was acquired in 2000 after becoming the first Saudi side to feature in the Club World Cup – make such a quantum leap? Here, Sport360 runs down five of the major factors – with help from SofaScore.com.
HAMDALLAH THE HERO
Football is a team sport, but – to paraphrase George Orwell – some footballers do far more than others.
The €6 million paid to Al Rayyan last August for centre forward Abderazzak Hamdallah represents one of the smartest decisions in the Saudi game’s history.
Goals were expected from someone who had netted with abandon in his native Morocco, Norway, China and Qatar. But the 28-year-old did better than merely meet expectations; he shattered them.
The committed centre forward’s unmatched tally of 34 strikes in 26 matches broke the all-time record for a single SPL campaign – held by Al Ittihad icon Hamzah Idris. It had stood for 19 years.
This figure was a colossal 13 greater than Hilal’s celebrated ex-France marksman Bafetimbi Gomis and Al Taawoun’s Cameroon sensation Leandre Tawamba.
Saudi Arabia persona non grata Mohammad Al Sahlawi netted just 10 times when the club limped home a distant third in 2017/18.
Furthermore, Hamdallah’s nine assists set the division’s benchmark along with club and country colleague Nordin Amrabat. In total, he accounted for 29.7 per cent of Nasr’s goals for the SPL season.
Remarkably, only two efforts came in his first nine top-flight fixtures.
December 8’s critical equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Hilal would then spark a staggering run – for club and player – of 32 in 18.
Responsibility down the stretch was not shirked. His final five matches contained two hat-tricks and three braces, the last of which in Thursday’s 2-1 triumph against relegated Al Batin sealed a first SPL title since 2014/15.
Hamdallah’s influence was vast, even beyond the score sheet.
Humble and understated off the pitch, bullish and with the gait of a light-heavyweight boxer when on it. He is, truly, a striker of rare renown.
BETTER IN ALL RESPECTS
A frustrating and perplexing few seasons for the Nassr faithful have met a glorious end.
The King Fahd Stadium-outfit had, frankly, been a shambles for far too long.
Jorge Da Silva was ungratefully dismissed in the October after 2014/15’s title triumph. A further seven coaches were chewed up and spat out on the way to 2017/18’s third-placed result, 12 points off champions Hilal.
Mountains of debt, accrued through a reckless transfer churn, had also seen a licence denied for the 2018 AFC Champions league.
Then came last summer’s paradigm-shifting, overnight $340m infusion of cash into the SPL from the General Sports Authority, Saudi Arabia Football Federation and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Nassr spent big and, largely, spent wisely.
Tenacious Brazilian midfielder Petros became of a symbol of Nassr’s new values. For a €5m investment from Sao Paulo, 85 tackles were added – the SPL’s seventh most.
Right-back Sultan Al-Ghannam cost €1.4m from Al Faisaly. His five assists was the second-most for any SPL defender.
Feyenoord goalkeeper Brad Jones was a steadying influence, while Fenerbahce creator Giuliano notched eight goals and five assists in 30 SPL matches.
Galatasaray loanee Maicon added gravitas at the back, in the wake of his mid-season arrival.
The travails of Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa – for whom Leicester City’s £14.5m fee witnessed a return of just seven goals in 24 SPL run-outs – would have sunk them in other seasons. This time, one malfunctioning part could not destabilise the whole.
IN SAFE HANDS
Last summer’s doubling of the foreign quota to eight had a profound impact on the SPL’s goalkeeping ranks.
Long-term Australia back-up Jones was one of a flood of non-Saudi shot stoppers snapped up.
His purchase from then Eredivisie champions Feyenoord was astute. Behind the division’s meanest defence, a joint-high 11 clean sheets came from 25 SPL matches.
The ex-Liverpool No2 was well protected by Nassr. He only had to make the 13th most saves (49) and conceded the 15th most goals from inside his penalty box (18).
But he was also proactive, making the division’s joint-third most run-outs (nine) and high claims (14).
Last term’s No1 Waleed Abdullah ranked 17th and ninth, respectively.
THE BIG MOMENTS
There was precious little to separate competing heavyweights who splashed more than €40m each last summer.
The destination of the 2018/19 trophy would, then, be decided in a few decisive moments. In the double header against Hilal, an iron will would ensure they all went Nassr’s way.
None held greater significance than Brazil centre-back Bruno Uvini’s 97th-minute header on March 29 that looped over Oman icon Ali Al Habsi and secured an epic 3-2 victory.
This goal both increased a tailspin for the sorry Zoran Mamic with the Crescent, plus sent Nassr into the lead.
December’s opening bout would also be packed with drama.
At a tinderbox King Saud University Stadium, Nassr walked out under the control of Portuguese caretaker Helder Cristovao – in place since November’s capricious call to dump Jose Daniel Carreno – and found themselves 2-0 down by 18 minutes. Lesser sides would have crumpled, especially with the pressure of a potential six-point deficit mounting.
Instead, athletic headers from Brazil playmaker Giuliano and Hamdallah in five indefatigable second-half minutes spelled out this squad’s desire.
Nassr’s form down the final straight under ex-Benfica tactician Rui Vitoria was almost flawless. They dropped only three points from their final 36.
Hilal, alone, in their last eight run-outs slipped up four times. This month’s 2-0 consequential defeat against Al Taawoun handed Nassr a lifeline after they slipped up against improving Al Ittihad.
Other standouts for The Global in this decisive period included three unanswered goals from the 70-minute mark to prevail 3-2 at Ettifaq, plus Hamdallah’s gritty first-half penalty to grind out a 1-0 win against relegation-threatened Al Fayha.
STRIKING IT RICH WITH RUI
It was an enormous gamble – but one that Nassr’s trophy cabinet now proves was worth taking.
November’s decision to dismiss Carreno seemed, at best, reckless at the time. From nine SPL matches at the helm, an average of 2.44 points per game had been registered.
Caretaker Cristovao did a sterling job, until unforeseen opportunity arose. Within a week of Benfica’s ruthless culling of Vitoria in January after six trophies in four years, he was at the King Fahd.
Vitoria’s dogged, disciplined approach gelled perfectly with workmanlike talents like Petros, Amrabat and Hamdallah in the second half of 2018/19. His system also provided space for the likes of Giuliano and overlapping Al Ghannam to excel.
The contrast in succession management to Hilal was stark – and telling. The Crescent soon imploded once fellow Portuguese Jorge Jesus would not commit to a second season in January and the unfortunate Mamic came in.
Nassr, however, blossomed under Vitoria’s care.
Fans of UAE football will have observed with curiosity the fading continental fortunes of one creaking giant, and the waking from a deep slumber of another behemoth, this year.
Al Ain – record 13-time winners of the Arabian Gulf League and the only team from the Emirates to taste AFC Champions League glory – brought the curtain down on a sorry 2019 continental campaign on Monday night, following a 2-1 home defeat to Esteghlal.
Of course, their 2019 Asia ambitions officially ended in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago when they were defeated 2-0 by powerhouses Al Hilal.
The following evening, compatriots Al Wahda laid to rest the ghost of tournaments past when they booked their ticket to the knockout stages with a 3-1 triumph over Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in Abu Dhabi – it will be their first trip beyond the group phase in 12 years.
On that occasion, in 2007, the Clarets – for whom now iconic UAE forward Ismail Matar was just a 23-year-old bright-eyed star in the making – went all the way to the semi-finals.
Now with a deeply talented squad – and led by enigmatic Dutchman Henk ten Cate – the in-form capital city club should be considered dark horses for a deep run on the continent.
They have proven, yet again, they don’t possess the consistency required to win a league title over a full season. For so often in recent years, the AGL title has seemed Wahda’s holy grail. Not since 2009/10 have the Clarets hoisted the trophy.
But with a stacked arsenal of attacking options, Ten Cate’s troops have been a fearsome cup team in recent years – gluttonously hoovering up 2016/17’s President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup double, with the latter being lifted again in 2017/18.
The Clarets are the top scorers in the ACL group stages with 14 and finished top of Group B with 13 points following Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Al Ittihad in Jeddah.
Veteran Argentine strike Sebastian Tagliabue became the AGL’s leading foreign goalscorer of all time this season and could yet surpass his highest league tally of 28 (he currently leads the charts on 26).
Brazilian forward Leonardo has been a sensation since arriving on a free transfer from Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah last summer – notching 24 goals in 31 appearances. Eight of those have come in five Champions League outings and he is the tournament’s leading scorer.
Effervescent Tanzania talent Yahya Al Ghassani has shown flashes of brilliance too while Wahda’s young yet experienced core also includes goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi and versatile defenders Ahmed Rashid and Khaled Ibrahim (all 22).
Mohamed Al Hammadi (22), Tahnoon Al Zaabi (20) and Mansor Al Harbi (19) have emerged this season and played significant roles.
As they are on the rise in Asia, passing them by on a drastic slide down are Al Ain. The Boss left the building on Monday and their continental woes are a microcosm for a largely pitiful campaign in general.
Juan Carlos Garrido’s side went winless in six games, two points a paltry return for a team that reached the ACL final just three years ago and also featured in the quarters and semi-finals in the previous five years.
Their capitulation in recent months at home and abroad – they won just once during a 12-match run spanning February 28-May 6 – had led to them being alarmingly jettisoned out of both the AGL title race and the 2020 Champions League picture.
They have at least arrested this slide in recent weeks – back-to-back wins in the AGL putting them back into third and prime spot for one of the remaining two ACL spots. Third and fourth will enter the ACL qualifiers as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, guaranteed to finish runners-up behind Sharjah, have already gained Champions League entry via their President’s Cup triumph.
The Boss, therefore, look likely to stave off what would be an embarrassing first failure to reach the Champions League in eight years.
Not since 2012 has the competition not counted the Boss among its 32 starting combatants. The last time they failed to get beyond the group stage was 2013.
Then again, even if they do make it, they’re still vulnerable. A daunting trip to the capital to take on Wahda – three points behind and with a superior goal difference – awaits in their final league game on Saturday, while Al Jazira are a point behind in fourth and go to ninth-placed Al Nasr.
Even if they achieve their aim, the most testing of summers awaits. Garrido – if he remains in charge – and club brass have some major issues to thrash out. Sweden striker Marcus Berg is likely to leave while livewire Brazilian Caio is heading to Portuguese giants and Primeira Liga champions Benfica.
Wahda’s faith in youth – something championed by Ten Cate during his Jazira revolution – proves they are moving with the times, while Al Ain remain anchored in defence by Ismail Ahmed (35) and Mohanad Salem (34), steadfastly refusing to change.
Too many weeds have been allowed to grow in the Garden City. If they are not cut away, the Boss could be stuck in the shade of taller trees for some time.
It marks the first time that the Boss have failed to emerge from the group stage in six years – ending their campaign on two points.
They did at least go down fighting though, with goalkeeper Khalid Essa particularly impressive. We take a look at the UAE shotstopper’s evening.
Buoyed by their recent 5-1 Arabian Gulf League thrashing of Al Wasl at home, the Boss – who took a giant step towards qualifying for next year’s ACL with that victory – started confidently at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
They took the lead when impressive Bandar Al Ahbabi slipped in Marcus Berg, the Swede finishing with aplomb as he fired through Seyed Hosseini’s legs to make it 1-0 after 13 minutes, a first goal in seven games.
The lead lasted just nine minutes though, Mohammad Daneshgar leaping to head in Vouria Ghafouri’s corner. The away side got their noses in front in first half stoppage time when Morteza Tabrizi finished off a flowing passing move.
Both sides pushed for more goals in the second half but Esteghlal maintained their lead, with excellent Essa keeping the visitors at bay.
Got right – Keeping his side in it
The 29-year-old is the UAE’s No1 for reason. The Whites have deployed a number of custodians between the sticks in recent years, but Essa has been the most consistent of them all.
He could do little to prevent either of Esteghlal’s goals – a towering free header from Daneshgar and a sweetly-struck effort from Tabrizi – but what he could do, he was excellent.
He dived athletically to his left to palm away South African midfielder Ayanda Patosi’s penalty and made crucial late interventions to deny the visitors making the scoreline more emphatic.
Got wrong – Unnecessarily flash
There are plenty of talented stoppers in UAE football, but they have a tendency to try and capture the spectacular rather than play it safe. Essa is an adept catcher of the ball and a puncher, when required.
But there was an uncomfortable moment in the first half when he came to collect a cross and took to the air like Superman to clear it when he could have gathered easily.
Al Ain fans also had hearts in mouths when a sliced clearance from one of his own players could have been collected – yet he chose to chest the ball down and play out from the back. Essa was calmness personified and it looked stylish – but it was unnecessary.
A fine shot-stopper who is agile and comes confidently to claim crosses and provides a vocal presence, Essa has been a rock for the Boss for many years. But, in a season in which there has been very little to celebrate, the Al Jazira youth product’s qualities have shone through even more – because he’s been called on to bail his side out much more than previous years.
It mattered little here with his side already out, but Essa was excellent and his unrelenting thirst to keep Esteghlal at bay meant his side were always in the game.