Could new format lead to new name on trophy despite virus worry?

RIYADH: The outcomes of three penalties went a long way to deciding the outcome on Monday as league leaders Al-Hilal took another step towards a record 16th top-flight championship title, beating Al-Fateh 2-1 in the final match of round 24 of the Saudi Professional League.

The Riyadh side have won both their matches since the season resumed last week after a hiatus lasting more than four months as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier in the day, second-placed Al-Nassr — who were comprehensively beaten 4-1 by Al-Hilal last Wednesday — cut the lead at the top of the table to six points thanks to a 2-0 away win at Abha Club. This was expected to be a temporary reduction, but the evening turned out to be anything but comfortable for Al-Hilal’s Romanian coach, Razvan Lucescu, and his players against an Al-Fateh team sitting third from bottom in the league, one point from safety, and fighting for SPL survival.

Things seemed to be going according to script for the home team when they took the lead in 38 minutes through a Bafétimbi Gomis penalty, after Yasser Al-Shahrani was fouled in the box — although it took the intervention of the video assistant referee to make the correct decision after the referee wrongly penalized the Al-Hilal player.

Al-Fateh improved after the break and equalized on 52 minutes when the unlucky Gomis deflected a Gustav Wikheim corner into his own net.

Sofiane Bendebka almost gave Al-Fateh a shock lead on the hour mark when he danced through Al-Hilal’s defense but his left-footed shot was deflected for a corner.

Al-Hilal, driven on by captain Carlos Eduardo, Al-Shahrani and the excellent Salem Al-Dawsari, piled on the pressure as the clock ticked down. Yet it was Al-Fateh who were presented with a golden opportunity to take the lead and potentially claim three priceless points. With 10 minutes left, the referee awarded the visitors a penalty — but much to the annoyance of their Belgian coach, Yannick Ferrera, Marwane Saadane’s casual attempted chip went over the bar.

His complacency proved costly just four minutes later, as Al-Hilal were awarded another penalty, this time as a result of a handball by Bendebka. Once again, Gomis made no mistake from the spot to give the home side a lead that proved enough to take all three points.

“We knew this was going to be a difficult match, just as it was in the first match we played against Al-Fateh,” said match-winner Gomis.

“After the long break and after the mental effort that went into the last match (the derby against closest challengers Al-Nassr), it was always going to be tough. But we knew that even if we didn’t perform to Al-Hilal’s usual standards, we could still ensure that we got the points. The three points today are very important as we chase the title.”

Despite two wins out of two since the resumption of the SPL, and a lead of nine points with only six games left, the Frenchman refused to take anything for granted.

“In this league the differences between the teams are very small,” he said. “Nothing has been decided yet in terms of the title.”

Al-Fateh captain Mohammed Al-Fuhaid preferred to focus on the positives from the game, rather than dwell too much on the missed opportunity.

“Luck wasn’t with us,” he said. “We got the penalty in the last 10 minutes and we could have got that second goal.

“We had played very well — the players’ performance was heroic in my opinion. Everyone played their part: those who started and the substitutes who came on in the second half. Hopefully we can put this behind us and look forward to the coming matches.

“Next up is Abha. We have to focus on it and play like we did today, and hopefully luck can be on our side and we can get a positive result.”

Regardless of Al-Fuhaid’s philosophical public attitude, Al-Fateh remain in 14th place and the result will be seen behind closed doors as a missed chance to leapfrog struggling Al-Ittihad.

“You can say our situation is more dangerous now,” Al-Fuhaid conceded. “But we should have no fear if we can play to the same level we did today, or better, in the coming matches.”

Al-Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf was relieved to secure the three points after a tough, but ultimately successful, week.

“It was a difficult match but in the end the circumstances worked out in our favor,” he said. “We managed to get the win, which is all that counts. We weren’t complacent, but we had a break of four months and perhaps we overexerted ourselves in the derby.”

In the day’s other matches Al-Shabab beat Al-Taawoun 1-0 in their mid-table clash, while bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah gave their chances of survival a boost with 2-1 victory over Al-Hazm, who are now only two points clear of the relegation zone.
 

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