The RSL race for continental football

With the AFC Champions League being reformatted for the 2024-25 tournament, only 24 teams (down from 40) will contest the title of Asia’s No.1 club, which will also see the winner become Asia’s first qualifier for the 2029 FIFA Club World Cup.

So there is more than just bragging rights at stake.

As the continent's No.1-ranked league, according to the official AFC Club Competitions Ranking, the Roshn Saudi League will receive the full suite of three direct slots for the newly formatted AFC Champions League Elite, while the King's Cup winners will qualify for the inaugural AFC Champions League 2.

The identity of two of those clubs is already known, with Al Hilal guaranteed to qualify and Al Nassr all but secured too, with the second-placed side in the 2023-24 Saudi top flight needing just one more point to officially book their place.

The identity of the third club, however, remains the biggest unknown heading into the final month of the season.

Mathematically, all clubs down to Al Ettifaq or Damac remain in with a chance. Yet, in reality, it’s a race between Al Ahli, who are third currently, Al Ittihad and Al Taawoun.

We take a look at their respective runs home to decipher who will clinch that all important third spot.

Al Ahli: 3rd - 52 points (+25 Goal Difference)

The Jeddah giants have had a stranglehold on third place for the past few months, and have the advantage of a game in hand over their nearest rivals, albeit against the undefeated Al Hilal..

Matthias Jaissle’s side have lost the fewest number of games of those in contention, and importantly, with head-to-head being the deciding tiebreaker, have done the double against both Al Ittihad and Al Taawoun this season. It means they would have the advantage over either team should they finish level on points.

Their run home is, on paper, the easiest of the three, with four of their remaining seven against teams outside the top 10. Four of their seven are also at home, where they have lost only once all season, against Al Nassr last month.

Remaining Fixtures: Al Riyadh (A), Damac (H), Al Hilal (H), Al Shabab (A), Abha (H), Al Raed (A), Al Fayha (H)

Al Ittihad: 4th - 50 points (GD+17)

Just one win in their past three RSL outings has somewhat halted the momentum Al Ittihad had generated after the league resumed in February from its mid-season break.

Marcelo Gallardo’s side had strung together six wins from seven, losing only to Al Hilal, and had the chance to leapfrog Jeddah rivals Al Ahli into third when the two met in Matchweek 26. A 1-0 loss, thanks to Firas Al Buraikan's first-half strike, gave the advantage back to Al Ahli in the race for the final AFC Champions League Elite spot.

A 0-0 draw with Al Taawoun and a 3-2 win over Al Hazem followed, keeping Al Ittihad within touching distance of Al Ahli, although requiring them to stumble in order to pounce. Unlike Al Ahli, they only face one side in the bottom 10 and have to make the trip to Al Nassr on the final day of the season.

Remaining Fixtures: Al Shabab (H), Abha (A), Al Ettifaq (H), Al Khaleej (A), Damac (H), Al Nassr (A)

Al Taawoun: 5th - 48 points (GD +16)

Al Taawoun are no strangers to the pointy end of the table, with three top-four finishes in the past decade, including third in 2018-19. However, even considering that, this has been an impressive season for Pericles Chamusca’s side.

They’re also no strangers to the continental football, having qualified three times previously, making the AFC Champions League Round of 16 in 2020, where they lost narrowly in an all-RSL encounter to Al Nassr.

Currently, Al Taawoun would be considered the least likely of the three to qualify a fourth time given they are already four points behind Al Ahli, who have a game in hand. They would therefore need both of the Jeddah sides to slip up in order to capitalise - and would also need to be near-perfect themselves.

Al Taawoun also take on the unbeaten Al Hilal, as well as Damac, Al Shabab and Al Ettifaq, who are all inside the top 10. Thus, it makes theirs marginally the toughest run home of the three sides.

Remaining Fixtures: Damac (A), Al Hilal (H), Al Riyadh (A), Al Shabab (H), Al Fayha (A), Al Ettifaq (H)