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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Al-Hilal took a major step toward regaining the Saudi Professional League (SPL) on Wednesday as they secured a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Al-Nassr in a top-of-the-table clash at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.
The league leaders went into the Riyadh derby six points clear of their city rivals, knowing that a win would strike a decisive blow in the title race. A record 16th championship now looks inevitable, barring an unforeseen — and unlikely — collapse.
The SPL, like all other sporting events in the Kingdom, was put on hold on March 14 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The competition resumed on Tuesday with five matches, and Al-Hilal’s triumph the following night completed the season’s 23rd round of games. Seven matches are now all that separate Al-Hilal from another title. Games are being played behind closed doors, with no spectators.
Al-Nassr, who were unbeaten in four games against their opponents, started off on the front foot, adopting a high-pressure approach that seemed to be disrupting Al-Hilal’s build-up play. Nevertheless, it was Al-Hilal who broke the deadlock with a goal on 35 minutes, as Sebastian Giovinco delivered a firm finish after collecting Mohammed Al-Breik’s low cross.
With the last move of the half, however, Al-Nassr equalized through a fierce strike by Sultan Al-Ghanam. Goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf got a hand to the ball but could not prevent it crashing into the roof of the net.
Nine minutes after the break, Al-Hilal went ahead for a second time when Bafétimbi Gomis dispatched a penalty past Brad Jones, celebrating the goal in his unique, crawling style. This time, the lead would not be relinquished.
Five minutes later, Carlos Eduardo looked to have settled the match when he grabbed Al-Hilal’s third after some questionable defending.
Al-Nassr briefly improved after falling two behind, however, and on 66 minutes Nordin Amrabat was presented with a golden opportunity to cut the deficit in half after skipping through the Al-Hilal defense, only for his shot to be deflected wide for a corner.
With just over 10 minutes left, a superb cross by Salem Al-Dawsari was expertly dispatched by Gomis to put the result beyond any doubt and assure Al-Hilal of a nine-point lead in the SPL.
“After a long break you must come back strongly,” Al-Dawsari said. “We have high expectations, regardless of whether we had won or lost the match. As you saw today we achieved the win and we still have bigger ambitions to go for the title.”
Al-Dawsari played a part in two of the goals and stood out as one of the fittest-looking players after the lengthy hiatus.
“I’m a professional player and during the break I was expected to look after myself,” he said. “The league was not over. So you have to set your own fitness schedule.
“Yes, the break was long but our coaching staff were watching us and our training was ongoing throughout. After the long disruption we had a duty to entertain our fans, especially in a derby match. Today we put on a performance worthy of Al-Hilal. It’s sad to play big matches like this without fans but hopefully they will be back soon.”
Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi echoed these comments, praising his team-mates for their superior fitness and confidence.
“Our preparation meant we came back strongly after the break,” he said. “We were confident we would put on good performance and that showed in the result.”
He acknowledged, however, that a few defensive lapses could have cost the league leaders.
“We’ve been working recently on our defending,” he added. “If you notice, Al-Nassr’s few dangerous attacks came from our mistakes. Hopefully we can avoid that in the future.”
While Al-Bulaihi refused to be drawn on whether he believes the title is now all but secured, Al-Hilal fans will already be planning their celebrations after such a comprehensive victory over their closest challengers.
Earlier in the day, Al-Shabab enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 victory over fourth-placed Al-Wehda to end the day in seventh spot, while a first-half goal was enough to secure an away win for ninth-placed Ettifaq against bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah.
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