Saudi Professional League: Talking points as Al Hilal face emotional hangover, Christian Gross takes third bite

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(Twitter/@ALAHLI_FC).

Al Hilal have no time to ponder their rollercoaster ride to the 2019 AFC Champions League final, with round 8 of the Saudi Professional League presenting a red-hot Riyadh derby against 2018/19 champions Al Nassr.

Razvan Lucescu’s side almost threw away what seemed a virtually unassailable first-leg lead against Xavi’s depleted Al Sadd to sneak into a third continental showpiece in six years.

Elsewhere, Swiss veteran Christian Gross kicks off a third reign at Al Ahli Jeddah in five years with a trip to mid-table Al Hazem and promoted Al Adalah’s Madagascar sensation Carolus Andriamatsinoro takes aim at Ettifaq.

HILAL’S EMOTIONAL HANGOVER

Lucescu and his Hilal cohort could not have been blamed for locking themselves away in a dark room after the astounding scenes at King Saud University Stadium.

Salem Al Dawsari’s early opener made worries about ruinous complacency from Hilal real. A torrent of three goals from the Qataris in three first-half minutes produced mass panic that was tempered by Bafetimbi Gomis’ quick-fire reply, prior to Boualem Khoukhi’s strike past 90 minutes amplifying them again in a fraught 6-5 aggregate win.

From this maelstrom, Lucescu must focus frayed minds. Neighbours Nassr are up next on Sunday.

Their inability to beat Al A’alami (The Global) in both 2018/19 games played its part in a one-point unseating. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself, no matter the mitigation.

ONCE, TWICE, THREE TIMES AN AHLI COACH

Gross is the manager Ahli can never truly rid themselves of.

The 65-year-old has been embraced like a returning hero in Jeddah since Tuesday. Selfie requests could be counted in the hundreds, while the Middle East’s ubiquitous ornate celebratory cake awaited at the training ground.

This is the eternal debt gifted to the man who engineered 2015/16’s first top-flight crown in 32, agonising, years. Less can be said about 2016/17’s hollow comeback…

Gross, however, is in a rare position for an incoming manager.

Beyond reams of insider knowledge, he inherits a buoyant side sitting third in the table after three wins in four games under caretaker Saleh Al Mohammadi. Forget cake, this is a gift to truly savour.

MADAGASCAN MARSKMAN

It’s easy in the SPL to fixate on the big-name foreigners at the top end of the table, or the high-profile Saudi Arabia internationals.

Andriamatsinoro has an unfeasibly long name, but it is one which resonates with few casual SPL observers. His continued goalscoring antics, however, should end this unknown status.

The forward inspired a debut charge to the top flight and prospered at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Thursday’s opponents Ettifaq will, certainly, be aware.

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