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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