Saudi Professional League leaders Al Hilal survived a shuffling of their pack and physical buffering by hosts Ettifaq to emerge with a valuable 4-1 triumph.
Several heroes from Tuesday’s 4-1 thrashing of Xavi’s Al Sadd in the 2019 AFC Champions League semi-final opener were named on the substitutes’ bench as coach Razvan Lucescu sought to inject freshness into his side. This strategy gained reward in the 20th minute when talisman Carlos Eduardo – not registered in Asian competition – rolled home a penalty earned via the video assistant referee after Senegalese striker Souleymane Doukara struck ex-South Korea centre-back Jang Hyun-soo with an elbow.
Struggling hosts Ettifaq, however, refused to be cowed throughout this feisty contest and midfielder Saleh Al Amri lashed an intricately worked free-kick into the top corner of stand-in goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Waked’s goal moments before the half-hour mark.
A response was required at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium Dammam and it duly came in the second half. Al Raed loanee Saleh Al-Shehri scrambled in a 56th-minute corner to open his Hilal account, before replacement Bafetimbi Gomis’ exhibition of trademark composure witnessed him shoot unnervingly low in the 76th minute for a fourth top-flight goal in six 2019/20 run-outs, and Eduardo scrambled in during the final throes.
The joy from the midweek raid on Doha would have been swiftly knocked out of Hilal in Dammam.
A riotous first half saw the sides share 13 fouls (7/6 to the men in green). Chances were also shared evenly.
Hilal’s Saudi Arabia centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi cleared a Fawaz Al Torais header off the line and then critically put off Slovakia centre-back Filip Kiss from the subsequent corner, while at the other end Al Shehri should have done better with a wayward header.
Yet the visitors would exhibit champions’ resolve to ignore these distractions in a dominant second half. Lesser title pretenders would have drained points.
STATE OF PLAY
Lucescu must be a content man headed into his second international break as Hilal boss.
Sweet progress into next month’s ACL final seems assured, while maximum pressure is being applied on domestic rivals.
A quirk of the fixture list caused SPL holders Al Nassr to sit out this match-week. The yellow half of Riyadh will now note they boast nearly half their rivals’ points tally (16/8) with a fifth of the season played.
Even with a game in hand, they’ll now need to go on some run in the winter. A Herculean challenge has been set by last term’s relentless runners-up.
LOSING THEIR EDGE
There was much to admire from Ettifaq.
Potential Saudi call-ups Al Torais and Al Amri were lively, while Tunisia playmaker Naim Sliti oozes creativity. They did, however, lack the cutting edge to make the most of an excellent first half.
Doukara does not convince as a replacement for Al Shabab’s Cristian Guanca. The 14-goal Argentine’s omnipresent threat will be missed throughout 2019/20.
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Managerless Al Ahli Jeddah will be determined to keep confounding the uncertainty that surrounds them when round six of the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League kicks off.
Caretaker Saleh Al Mohammadi’s solid stewardship continued last week when champions Al Nassr were held to a goalless draw. This result sees the ‘Fortress of Trophies’ sitting in fourth place, ahead of Saturday’s trip to sinking Al Fayha.
Elsewhere in the top flight, a host of players will be aiming to impress Saudi Arabia boss Herve Renard prior to the international break and Fathi Al Jabal may reach the end of the road at bottom-placed Al Fateh.
CALM WITHIN THE AHLI CHAOS
It appears, from the outside, utterly remarkable that Ahli have managed to shed a widely respected tactician in Branko Ivankovic last month, weather a summer shirt-throwing controversy with star striker Omar Al Somah and yet still sit level on points with the holders.
This is where ample credit must be given to stand-in Al Mohammadi. Their former player and youth-team coach instantly ditched reputed troublemakers Hussein Abdulghani and Saeed Al Mowalad for September 21’s debut 2-0 win at struggling Al Fateh.
This new unity was key during a stalemate with Nassr that they dominated, pumping in 14 attempts to their exalted visitors’ six.
Swat aside Fayha and rumours Al Mohammadi is set to stay until season’s end may become official during this month’s stoppage.
CATCHING RENARD’S EYE
A select group of domestic players will soon answer their country’s call for this month’s World Cup 2022 qualifying double header against Singapore and Palestine.
An intriguing selection awaits from Renard after an underwhelming first spell at the helm last month that included an embarrassing 2-2 competitive opener with minnows Yemen.
The ex-Morocco boss has been busy in the interim scouting matches.
Ettifaq duo Fawaz Al Torais and Ali Hazazi have a showcase against giants Al Hilal this weekend, while if Al Hazem midfielder Hassan Al Habaib can add to his joint-league high three assists versus Al Ittihad then a recall should follow. More goals for Abdullah Al Hamdan, 20, for Al Shabab against promoted Al Adalah may cement his status as the long-awaited new No9.
AL JABAL’S LAST STAND?
2019/20 has, frankly been a living nightmare for Al Jabal and Fateh.
Zero points and a goal difference of minus seven have been recorded from their five torrid fixtures. This has ensured intense scrutiny and conjecture about the employment of their Tunisian coach.
Al Jabal, 56, will forever remain a club icon after 2012/13’s staggering SPL title victory. Past achievements, however, cannot insulate him from the terminal impact of potential defeat versus third-bottom Al Raed.
Middle East pride and a shot at 2019 AFC Champions League glory will be on the minds of heavyweights Al Sadd and Al Hilal for Tuesday’s enticing semi-final opener.
An intense clash is expected at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium when these decorated clubs scrap to show who is best placed to end West Asia’s eight-year wait for another winner. Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi will be in the dugout for the hosts, while expectations rest on ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis to force a valuable away goal.
Their names have become synonymous with goalscoring.
Both Sadd’s Bounedjah and Hilal’s Gomis, however, have stuttered at times in Asia’s premier club competition this year.
The latter found himself regularly on the score sheet for clubs such as Lyon and Galatasaray, prior to plundering 24 goals in 35 Saudi Professional League run-outs for Hilal. His Algerian opposite number has upped the ante in the region, netting a preposterous 45 times in 25 Qatar Stars League matches since the start of 2018/19 alone.
But Gomis is scoreless in three games since a round-of-16 hat-trick at Al Ahli Jeddah, while Bounedjah’s suspect penalty in the previous round versus Al Nassr ended a five-match scoreless run. They must now catch fire.
WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION
The time is now for both clubs.
January’s resounding Asian Cup success from Sadd’s sizeable Qatar contingent has bred expectation. So, too, Xavi’s startling – but not surprising – early impact that sees his inherited champions top the nascent 2019/20 QSL with a game spare.
“#ACL2019 is the only trophy I’m missing with @Alhilal_EN 🏆”— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) September 30, 2019
”I’m not looking for revenge against Urawa 🇯🇵”
”We’re only looking for a win 🔝”
we asked @salem_d29 some questions before tomorrow’s game 🗣👇 pic.twitter.com/TjmJeEXU3S
For Hilal, new coach Razvan Lucescu knows all other aspects of his job pale into insignificance when compared to lifting a first continental crown since 2000 – and first of the ACL era.
The last time Sadd faced down a Saudi side, they ran them off the park.
Reticent SPL holders Nassr cracked under a second-half onslaught in the quarter-final decider. They, however, could become victims of this method in Qatar.
A central unit of Salman Al Faraj, Mohammed Kanno and Sebastian Giovinco look to have the legs on Gabi, Jung Woo-young and Nam Tae-hee.
Xavi has alternated between 5-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations, to date. It will be intriguing to witness how he tackles this test.