Mitrovic returns to fire Al Hilal, Abha shock Al Ittihad to boost survival bid

With Mitrovic back, Al Hilal dominate Al Taawoun in Buraidah

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored on his return from injury as Al Hilal took a step closer to the Roshn Saudi League title on Friday night with a comfortable 3-0 win at Al Taawoun.

It took a while for the league leaders to get going at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, although Ruben Neves did flash a shot inches over on 15 minutes after slick build-up play between Mitrovic and Malcom.

Mitrovic, who missed the past three matchweeks because of a hamstring injury, made his presence felt moments later by picking up a yellow card for a challenge on Al Taawoun defender Waleed Al Ahmed.

However, with five minutes remaining in the first half, the Serbian marked his return with a now trademark header. Michael drifted the ball to the back post, where Mitrovic had positioned himself perfectly to head home before he crashed into the post. It marked a 23rd goal in 23 RSL appearances for Al Hilal’s No.9.

Before the half was out, Michael could have grabbed his second assist of the night. Neves provided a delicate clip into the Al Taawoun area, which found the Brazilian winger, who simply pushed the ball into the path of compatriot Malcom. To his dismay, his effort hit the side netting.

As expected, Al Hilal dominated possession and continued to press ahead in the second half. Al Taawoun, meanwhile, had only one shot on target, but they came close to levelling the tie when Abdulfattah Adam was found by Flavio in the Al Hilal area. Visiting goalkeeper Yassine Bounou saved well, though.

Inevitably, Al Hilal notched their second, doubling their advantage on 70 minutes with a sweeping team goal. Again, Michael was involved, pressing well and pouncing on an errant midfield pass.

Surging forward into the Al Taawoun area, a sublime piece of skill allowed him to skip around two Al Taawoun defenders before passing to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The Serbian cut the ball into the path of full-back Saud Abdulhamid, who side-footed home for his third goal of the RSL campaign. 

Substitute Saleh Al Shehri put the gloss on the victory deep into stoppage-time. True to form, Michael was at the heart of Al Hilal’s attacking play, cutting in from the right and laying off the ball into the Saudi Arabian’s path. Al Shehri, who had come on to replace Mitrovic, applied a deft flick to roll his effort into the bottom corner.

A 22nd consecutive RSL victory for Al Hilal, 12 points clear at the summit, means they are now only five matches away from registering an undefeated season. As for Al Taawoun, they remain firmly in the race for a spot in next season’s AFC Champions League Elite, four points behind third-placed Al Ahli. 

Clinical Abha register huge win against Al Ittihad

Abha came up with a mammoth victory in their quest for RSL survival on Friday, running out 3-1 winners at home to reigning champions Al Ittihad.

It was the visitors, though, who had the first real effort, when on 24 minutes Ahmed Al Ghamdi received the ball on the edge of the Abha penalty area, swivelled and drilled a shot towards goal that cannoned off the crossbar. The 22-year-old was in fact denied a third goal in the RSL by fine fingertip save from Abha goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

The absence of leading goalscorer Abderazzak Hamdallah was keenly felt by Al Ittihad, who dominated possession in the first half, but just lacked that killer instinct in the final third of the pitch.

Moments after the restart, the visitors thought they pushed ahead when substitute Marwan Al Sahafi turned in from close range. However, on second viewing, it was clear Jota had strayed a few yards offside before feeding the ball to the Saudi Arabian.

Abha then took the lead against the run of play just before the hour from the penalty spot. Forward Francois Kamano was tripped in the by defender Saad Al Mousa, leaving Abha midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak stepped up and promptly placed the ball into the bottom corner for his ninth RSL goal of the season.

Yet Krychowiak went from hero to villain when a second penalty was awarded in the space of three minutes. The Pole’s rash challenge pulled down Al Ittihad forward Romarinho, with the referee having little option but to award the spot-kick. Jota saw his initial effort saved by Tatarusanu, but the Portuguese forward was quick to react to the rebound and slid the ball home.

Tatarusanu was soon called into action again as Al Ittihad looked to seize the lead. Jota side-footed the ball over the head of Abha’s goalkeeper only for his effort to bounce back off the post. The ball then fell to striker Al Sahafi, but his tame effort was gladly gathered by the former Romania international.

On 69 minutes, Abha took the lead courtesy of a clinical counter-attack. Substitute Meshal Al Mutairi provided the through ball and Hassan Al Ali did the rest, the young winger showing a good turn of pace before holding off two Al Ittihad defenders and driving his shot home. It marked his third RSL goal of the campaign.

Three minutes later, Abha put the game out of reach with a perfect set-piece. Uros Matic whipped in the corner, which found Fabian Noguera, and the Argentine defender drilled home the ball to seal an eighth win of the season for Pitso Mosimane’s side.

The victory could prove vital at the end of the season, with Abha now level on points with 15th-placed Al Okhdood, who lie outside the relegation places only on goal difference. Al Ittihad, meanwhile, sit fifth, with a solitary victory in their past five RSL outings. 

Sakala on song as Al Fayha grind out a win at Al Ettifaq

Two goals in 13 second-half minutes from Fashion Sakala handed Al Fayha a fine 2-1 win away to Al Ettifaq on Friday.

Steven Gerrard’s side have enjoyed an impressive second half of the season on home turf at the recently renovated Al Ettifaq Club Stadium and had previously lost only to league leaders Al Hilal. That record dramatically changed, though, thanks to late goals from Sakala.

The hosts had underlined their attacking credentials as early as the ninth minute, when as Moussa Dembele latched onto Radhi Al Otaibi’s long throw but, thankfully for Al Fayha, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic did well to block.

At the other end, Al Fayha soon created their first change of note as Mukhir Al Rashidi’s flick-on from a Sultan Mandash corner hit off the top of the crossbar. Then, on 24 minutes, Ivorian left-back Ghislain Konan stung the palms of Al Ettifaq goalkeeper Paulo Victor with a fierce strike.

Al Ettifaq came out fighting in the second half and quickly went about creating chances. First, Dembele’s long-range effort was gathered by substitute goalkeeper Abdulraouf Al Duqail, while moments later, he tipped over Karl Toko Ekambi thumping half volley.

Perhaps buoyed by that, Al Fayha grew in confidence and should have really been ahead when Osama Al Khalaf’s acrobatic volley was well saved by Victor. The Al Ettifaq stopper was called into action soon after, pushing away Sakala’s smashed a shot from the angle.

With 72 minutes on the clock, Al Fayha made the breakthrough. Sakala clipped the ball to Mandash, who sped along the right wing and into the penalty area, before his Zambian teammate drove home his 15th goal of a fine debut RSL campaign.

Al Ettifaq are unbeaten against Al Fayha in their past 11 RSL encounters and drew level in the 80th minute with a well-worked team goal. Georginio Wijnaldum’s slide-rule pass found Dembele, who had begun the move out wide, with the Frenchman supplying an instinctive finish from a few yards out.

The drama didn't stop there, though, and Al Fayha and Sakala had their second goal four minutes later. Strike partner Anthony Nwakaeme did well to hold up the ball and cut back the ball to Sakala, whose wave of his right boot proved decisive.

The win allowed Al Fayha to leap to eighth in the RSL standings, on 41 points, and below Al Ettifaq and sixth-placed Al Fateh only on goal difference.