State of Play: Al Taawoun and Al Ittihad go head-to-head in battle for fourth

When the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League began, few would have predicted that Al Taawoun would be where they are heading in to the final two games of the season.

It’s not that the Buraidah-based side are strangers to the pointy end of the table, having finished inside the top five three times in the past five seasons, including third in the 2018-19 campaign.

However, with the surge of investment in the SPL’s traditional big four teams, the presiding view was that that quartet would have a stranglehold on the lead four positions.

But with two games to play, it is Pericles Chamusca’s side who have a four-point advantage over Al Ittihad in the chase for the final Asian spot.

Ordinarily, a place in the newly rebranded AFC Champions League Two would be reserved for the winner of the King’s Cup, but with that final to be contested by Al Hilal and Al Nassr - both have already qualified for the AFC Champions League Elite - fourth place in the RSL now carries with it qualification for ACL2.

It has added an extra element of intrigue to the conclusion of the season. Not only were Al Taawoun and Al Ittihad fighting to potentially catch Al Ahli in third – the Jeddah club sealed that spot in Matchweek 32 - but they are now suddenly battling each other to ensure they at least secure fourth place.

Here's how each team is positioned going into the penultimate round of fixtures on Thursday.

Al Taawoun - 4th (55 points)

With a solitary defeat in their past nine RSL matches, Al Taawoun are the more in-form team of the two and, in hindsight, Saturday’s 1-0 win over Al Shabab could prove crucial.

Having lost 3-0 to Al Hilal two weeks earlier, and then backed it up with a 0-0 draw against lowly Al Riyadh, Al Taawoun looked like they may have handed the ascendency to Al Ittihad. That’s what made the victory against Al Shabab so important as they now have their fate in their own hands.

Holding a four-point lead over Al Ittihad, Al Taawoun can secure the final ACL2 place this week, when they travel to face Al Fayha on Thursday night. Depending on the result of Al Ittihad’s clash with Damac, there is even a possibility Al Taawoun could lose and still secure their place if Al Ittihad also suffer the same fate.

But Chamusca’s side will want to claim their place in their own right and on their own terms, and they can do that with a win.

Should it come down to the final day of the season, Al Taawoun would face a tricky match-up against Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq, who are looking to conclude the campaign on a winning note.

The scenario for Al Taawoun is simple: win one of their final two fixtures and Asian qualification will be theirs.

Al Ittihad - 5th (51 points)

It has been a torrid season for the defending RSL champions. Despite starting the campaign as they finished the last, with four straight wins, Al Ittihad were never able to carry that momentum forward.

Nuno Espirito Santo was replaced by Marcelo Gallardo in November, and despite flickering signs of improvement, the latter part of the season is proving to be one to forget for the Jeddah giants.

Al Ittihad are now five RSL matches without a win, although last week’s 1-1 draw with Al Khaleej did halt a four-game losing streak. During that run, they lost 3-1 to relegation-threatened Abha and 5-0 to Al Ettifaq.

Unlike Al Taawoun, Al Ittihad’s destiny is not in their hands. They need to rely on their top-four rivals stumbling in the final two matchweeks and then hope for a rapid turnaround in form against Damac, at home, and Al Nassr, away.

Finishing outside the Asian qualification places would be a bitter pill to swallow for the team that were top of the pops last season, and who recruited so heavily in the off-season.

Yet, as it stands, that looks like the most likely scenario for the nine-time RSL champions.

Saudi Professional League 2024 - AL TAAWOUN vs AL ITTIHAD