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Saudi King’s Cup: Big clubs made to toil as minnows show their mettle

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Over three nights this week, the King’s Cup served up plenty of high drama as some of Saudi Arabia’s smaller football clubs had their moment in the spotlight. The Kingdom’s heavyweight teams all made it through to the round-of-16, but some of them were made to work hard for their wins in matches that offered plenty of entertainment, showcasing, at times, the best of knockout competition.

Al Arabiya English rounds up some of the highlights of the last-32 stage of the tournament.

Al Ittihad escapes embarrassment

The Saudi Pro League leaders came into their contest against Al Kholood as heavy favorites, but the First Division side’s coach Fabiano Flora came agonizingly close to springing an upset on his Portuguese compatriot Nuno Espirito Santo.

Although Al Ittihad rested star players Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, there were still places in the starting XI for the likes of Luis Felipe, Fabinho and Romarinho.

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When Al Ittihad took the lead after 18 minutes through a Roberto Dias own-goal, it looked as though it would be plain sailing.

However, Al Kholood produced a spirited display, equalizing just before half-time, after Argentine midfielder Mariano Vasquez pounced on a defensive error by Ahmed Bamsaud, before taking Al Ittihad all the way to a penalty shootout.

In a dramatic ending, Al Ittihad missed three penalties and Al Kholood were twice given the chance to win the match in sudden death, but both Jamaan al-Dossari and Roberto Dias failed to convert. It came down to the 10th penalty, which Talal Haji converted for Al Ittihad, before veteran goalkeeper Abdullah al-Mayouf saved one from Mohammed al-Shahrani to deny Al Kholood what would have been one of the biggest victories in the club’s history.


More near-misses

Quite like Al Ittihad, both Al Ahli and Al Hilal were also pushed hard by their opponents before progressing to the King’s Cup last-16 stage. Al Ahli’s defensive shortcomings have been well-documented this season, but their irresistible attack came to the rescue again against second-tier side Al Ain.

Firas al-Buraikan followed up his goal against Al Nassr last weekend with a double against Al Ain, with Sumayhan al-Nabit adding one more in the first half as Al Ahli looked in cruise control. A late brace from Cape Verde winger Dodo made for a nervy ending, but Al Ahli ultimately held on to progress to the next round.

Al Hilal gave Neymar the night off for their trip to First Division outfit Al Jabalain, but still put out a strong side. As Al Jabalain’s winger Mohamed Rayhi had predicted in an interview with Al Arabiya English before the game, his side demonstrated great belief after some impressive performances this season, managing to keep the game goalless until half-time.

However, Al Hilal’s star quality proved the difference as a solitary second-half goal from Portugal international Ruben Neves secured a narrow 1-0 win for the reigning King’s Cup champions.

Al Nassr run riot; trouble for Al Tai and Al Raed

Away to Ohod, it seemed Al Nassr could also face a tricky outing when Sadio Mane’s penalty was equalized by Konrad Michalak in first-half stoppage time. But Al Nassr produced a dominant second-half display to brush past their opponents.

Seko Fofana’s long-range strike kicked things off, followed by a header from Talisca and further goals from Ayman Yahy and Sami al-Najel as Al Nassr eased through.

Mane, Ronaldo & Co will now face Al Ettifaq in the pick of the last-16 fixtures after Steven Gerrard’s side joined Al Nassr and fellow early-season Saudi Pro League pacesetters Al Taawoun in the next round.

It was not such good news for Al Raed, though, strugglers so far in the 2023-24 season, as they crashed out at the hands of Al Najma, who were playing in the third tier of Saudi football this time last season.

Al Tai were the other Saudi Pro League side to be eliminated at the hands of a lower league opposition after a 2-0 defeat to 2021 King’s Cup winners – and current First Division side – Al Faisaly, who have been rewarded with a winnable last-16 match against Al Najma.

King’s Cup last-16 draw:

Al Fateh vs Al Shabab
Al Najma vs Al Faisaly
Al Fayha vs Al Ittihad
Al Khaleej vs Damac
Al Taawoun vs Al Wehda
Al Ahli vs Abha
Al Hilal vs Al Hazm
Al Nassr vs Al Ettifaq

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Al Nassr 4 Al Ahli 3: The takeaways from a high-scoring game

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