Al Ahli versus Al Hilal conjures memories of 2015-16 RSL title showdown

Matches between Al Ahli and Al Hilal, two of the most prominent clubs in the Roshn Saudi League, always have a lot riding on them.

For sure, that will be the case again on Monday night, when league leaders Al Hilal travel to Jeddah looking, not only to continue their unbeaten season, but take a huge step towards securing the top-flight title.

Al Ahli, meanwhile, will have dual ambitions also: inflict Al Hilal’s first defeat of the almost-concluded 2023-24 RSL campaign, and cement third place for themselves. With that, comes a place in next season’s AFC Champions League Elite.

But on 24 April, back in 2016, almost exactly eight years ago, the two giants of Saudi Arabian football met in Jeddah in one of the most hugely consequential matches in Al Ahli’s history.

In what was then a 14-team league, with a 26-match regular season, the two would clash in Matchweek 24. Al Ahli had lost only one game all season – incredibly, it was a shock 2-1 loss to relegation-threatened Najran – and thus sat three points clear at the top of the table, with Riyadh rivals Al Hilal breathing down their necks.

The two had met earlier in the season at the iconic King Fahd International Stadium in the capital, with Al Ahli winning 2-1 thanks to goals in either half from Hussain Al Moqahwi and Mohanand Asiri. As it turned out, it was a pivotal result.

With head-to-head the first deciding tiebreaker, it meant, as they entered their Matchweek 24 clash, an Al Ahli victory would extend their lead to an unassailable six points.

The equation, therefore, was simple. A win for Al Ahli would seal only the third league title in their history, and first since 1984. A win for Al Hilal, meanwhile, would draw them level on points and force the title race to go down to the final two matches of the season.

Al Ahli entered as favourites, having won five straight games and held onto top spot since the beginning of March.

Al Hilal’s lead-in form, however, was mixed. Back-to-back defeats to Al Ittihad and Al Taawoun, coupled with draws against Al Qadsiah and Al Shabab, contributed to a run of three wins in seven; a significant blip for a club so accustomed to winning.

Predictably billed a title showdown, the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium was jammed to capacity with a sea of green filling the stands in anticipation, while one end was completely clad in blue as thousands of Hilal fans descended from Riyadh to spur on their team.

The home fans’ nerves were tested early when their goalkeeper, Yasser Al Mosaileem, was called upon in the first 30 seconds, making a crucial interception after Carlos Eduardo was played through on goal by Aílton Almeida.

That early warning wasn’t heeded, however. Only 10 minutes in, Al Hilal seized the lead courtesy of Eduardo’s well-placed header, perhaps even providing the visitors the advantage in the title race, too.

Al Ahli’s manager, the former Tottenham, Basel and Stuttgart boss Christian Gross, cut a pensive figure on the sidelines as the two teams traded chances as the first half wore on.

Marquinho, Omar Al Somah and Salman Al Muwashar all narrowly shot wide for Al Ahli, while Aílton put an effort over the bar at the other end. Not long after, Al Mosaileem was called upon again to deny what would’ve been a catastrophic own goal.

With Al Hilal holding the 1-0 lead into half-time, the tension inside the stadium could be cut with a knife. But, a mere 10 seconds into the second half, the release valve blew; Golden Boot winner Al Somah fired home from the edge of the area to restore parity and breathe life back into the contest.

If one was good, then two was sheer bliss. Just minutes after equalising, Al Ahli were ahead through who else but the Syrian superstar, Al Somah.

Having lost marker Kwak Tae-hwi from a corner, Al Somah ghosted in unmarked at the back post to bundle home Motaz Hawsawi’s deft flick.

A cacophony of noise reverberated around King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. Al Ahli had turned the game, and the shootout for the RSL title, on its head.

The exclamation mark on a night of celebration came deep into stoppage time. Al Hilal had thrown bodies forward in desperate search of an equaliser and, as Al Ahli broke in numbers, Marquinho’s cross could only be parried by Khaled Sharahili to the feet of Hussain Al Moqahwi. The Saudi rifled home from close range to seal the three points – and, with it, the RSL trophy.

Upon the full-time whistle, pandemonium ensued, with the wild celebrations in the stands matched by those on the pitch. Tears flowed as the reality of the moment became too much for some.

It was a historic night for Al Ahli, who snapped a 32-year title drought that had weighed heavily on the club.

“I told my team before the game: we have to show to everybody that we want it more, that we want this win more,” Gross said in the aftermath.

“And their determination, particularly in the second half, was excellent.”

While they’ve been unable to scale those same heights again since – they even suffered a shock relegation in 2022 – Al Ahli’s immediate return to the RSL has seen them once again reclaim their place at the top of the game in Saudi Arabia.

There may be no title on the line for the hosts on Monday, but the memories of that night, now a full eight years ago, will live forever.