SPL Week 31: Al Hilal crowned champion as Al Ettifaq thrash dethroned Al Ittihad

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Global eyes are on the Saudi Pro League like never before after its clubs welcomed a host of star-studded new arrivals to the Kingdom over the past year. Each week, Al Arabiya English will round-up the key storylines as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Co do battle for the 2023-24 title.

Matchday 31 saw Al Hilal breeze past Al Hazm to finally secure its record-extending 19th Saudi Pro League championship triumph, while Al Ettifaq piled the misery on last year’s champion Al Ittihad with a 5-0 pummeling and a series of draws meant the relegation race remains evenly poised.

Hilal finally crowned champion

It has felt inevitable for some time, but Al Hilal put the exclamation point on an utterly dominant domestic season with a 4-1 win against Al Hazm that finally secured the club’s 19th Saudi Pro League title. Hilal underlined why it has remained unbeaten in the top flight this season with a four-goal first-half salvo that meant its fans in Riyadh knew they were set for a night of celebrations.

Jorge Jesus’ invincible side, which is now just three games from finishing the season without a single defeat, was in fine form again on Saturday. It began, as it so often has in 2023-24, with a goal from Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Serbia striker has been the driving force for the title triumph, and he showed a characteristic cool head to convert a penalty on 15 minutes after defender Paulo Ricardo was adjudged to have handballed.

Hazm momentarily looked like it might spoil Hilal's coronation party when Faiz Selemani, one of the few bright sparks for the visitor in a difficult season, equalized on 34 minutes. But Hilal has shown time and again how strong-willed it is this season and three goals in 12 minutes - including two in first-half stoppage time - turned the game wholly in its favor. First, Ahmed Al-Juwaid's bizarre - and spectacular - own goal from 25 yards out put Hilal back in front, before Mitrovic grabbed his 26th league goal of an outstanding debut season, peeling off his marker to fire home at the near post. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic - a certain contender for Saudi Pro League Player of the Year - added the fourth after shrugging off a couple of challenges.

While Hilal fans were joyous in Riyadh, it was a more somber feeling for those involved with Hazm. The club must now win all of its three remaining matches, while hoping other clubs falter, if it is to stand any chance of staying in the Saudi Pro League. Survival would be a miracle, but the club remains in the hunt to avoid the drop for another week after other results went its way.

Ettifaq piles pressure on Gallardo

It was unfortunate timing for Al Ittihad and its coach Marcelo Gallardo that one of its most embarrassing defeats in years came on the same day that it was relinquishing its title to Al Hilal. Ittihad’s season has imploded in recent weeks - with defeats to Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup and King’s Cup leaving last year’s league champion with nothing to play for this season. Gallardo’s side has now lost four matches in a row and five of its last six, with Friday’s 5-0 home thrashing by Al Ettifaq a new low for the under-pressure Argentine coach.

For Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq team it was a match to remember in Jeddah as it secured its biggest victory of the season. Ettifaq had only 10 shots on goal but an impressive 50 percent conversion rate meant that five of them ended up in the back of the net. Seko Fofana rifled an unstoppable 25-yard strike past goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Mahasneh to open the scoring for the visitor after five minutes and Ettifaq never looked back.

Striker Moussa Dembele then sent Al-Mahasneh the wrong way from the spot to double the lead, before a quickfire double from Karl Toko Ekambi left Ittihad 4-0 down at half-time and its supporters stunned at the club’s malaise. Ekambi’s first was a tap-in from close range and his second showed similar instinct as he scored with an outstretched leg. The Cameroon forward wasn’t done and claimed a memorable hat-trick nine minutes into the second half with a calm finish into the corner of the goal. Ettifaq held on to celebrate a remarkable victory while for Ittihad, there are many questions to answer in the coming weeks as it looks to regroup for next season.

Relegation battle hotting up

The fight for Saudi Pro League survival has arguably been more fascinating than the title race this season with twists and turns aplenty, and clubs regularly moving up and down, and switching positions at the bottom of the table. This week, it was Abha that made a morale-boosting ascent, rising a single point and position that means, as things stand, it is heading for safety. Abha’s 0-0 draw with Damac was unspectacular but enough for Pitso Mosimane’s side to climb into the haven of 15th place.

Abha usurped Al Akhdoud, which lost 3-2 at home to Al Nassr to drop to 16th. The host demonstrated plenty of spirit after early strikes from Marcelo Brozovic and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Nassr race into a 2-0 lead. In the second half, Akhdoud fought valiantly back as first Hassan Al Habib and then Nigerian winger Saviour Goodwin scored to put their team on the brink of an impressive draw with the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League's runner-up. But Croatian Brozovic, an often-unheralded player in a Nassr team full of attacking talent, broke Akhdoud hearts with a winner in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

Al Raed, in 13th place, looks to be the safest of those towards the bottom end of the table. But it could still be sucked in after a 1-1 draw with 17th-placed Al Tai, which is now on 28 points - eight clear of bottom club Al Hazm. Defender Ibrahim Al Nakhil put Al Tai in front but his side could not hold on for what would have been a vital victory; Moroccan midfielder Mohamed Fouzair's second-half strike ensuring the spoils were shared. There was also a draw for 14th-placed Al Riyadh, which battled to a heartening 0-0 stalemate with high-flying Al Taawoun.

Read more:

Mo Salah to Al Ittihad: What the Liverpool star’s possible move to Saudi would bring

SPL Week 30: Al Hilal close to title, Ronaldo’s fourth hat-trick, Abha springs upset

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