SPL week 33: Hotshot Haji shines for Al Ittihad as late goals shape relegation fight

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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 rounds up the key storylines as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Co do battle for the 2023-24 title.

Matchday 33, the penultimate round of matches this season, was a massive one for the clubs embroiled in the battle for Saudi Pro League survival. Abha was the biggest winner as it moved out of the relegation zone, while Al Riyadh was denied a famous derby victory over Al Nassr.

Elsewhere, Al Hilal showed struggling Al Tai no mercy, and Al Ittihad finally returned to winning ways thanks to a stunning performance from highly rated Saudi prospect Talal Haji.

Talented teen inspires Al Ittihad

A virtuoso display from Al Ittihad teenager Talal Haji ended his club’s recent barren run, inspiring the Jeddah giants to a comfortable 4-1 victory over Damac. Haji became the Saudi Pro League’s youngest ever goalscorer in March and is also the youngest player to ever play for the Saudi national team.

But this performance felt like a breakout moment for the 16-year-old, whose poise and precision on the ball belied his age. It was only Haji’s second Saudi Pro League start but he appeared totally unfazed by the occasion, scoring one and creating two more as Ittihad stopped its recent rot and claimed a first win in six matches.

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Haji began with a 38th-minute assist, receiving the ball from N’Golo Kante before releasing Jota, who finished well for his fourth goal of a somewhat underwhelming first campaign in the Kingdom. Kante, who this week had his place in France’s Euro 2024 squad confirmed, was involved again for Al Ittihad’s second - releasing Abdulrahman al-Yami to square for Haji to gratefully tap in from close range.

The pick of Haji’s contributions was his assist for Al Ittihad’s third. The precocious teenager bent a stunning 40-yard pass with the outside of his left foot round Damac’s defense and perfectly into the path of fellow youngster Marwan al-Sahafi. The midfielder gave Al Ittihad fans a glimpse of a bright future as he crashed his shot beyond the goalkeeper.

Eighteen-year-old Farhah al-Shamrani added a fourth but it was a night that belonged to Haji. With Saudi Arabia set to play two FIFA World Cup qualifiers in June, Green Falcons coach Roberto Mancini will be relishing the prospect of unleashing a buoyant Haji for the fixtures against Tajikistan and Jordan next month.

Al Nassr reins in Al Riyadh in derby

Al Riyadh was seconds away from claiming a momentous derby victory over Al Nassr on Thursday night, until Meshari al-Nemer struck at the death to deny the capital club a famous win. Had Al Riyadh taken the three points, it would have been moved to within a whisker of Saudi Pro League survival. Instead, the 2-2 draw leaves it firmly in a relegation scrap as four clubs - Al Riyadh, Abha, Al Tai, Al Akhdoud - vie to avoid demotion to the Saudi First Division.

Al Nassr took the lead at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium when Otavio’s speculative 20-yard shot took a wicked deflection off Al Riyadh striker Andre Gray and evaded Uruguayan goalkeeper Martín Campaña. Gray made amends soon after, however, with a delightful finish - the ex-Watford forward lifting the ball delicately over onrushing Al Nassr stopper David Ospina from 18 yards out.

The hosts then snuck ahead in first-half stoppage time as Al Riyadh No. 7 Mohammed al-Aqel produced a moment of magic that wouldn’t have looked out of place on opposite number Cristiano Ronaldo’s highlights reel. al-Aqel reacted fastest to Yahya al-Shehri’s scooped through-ball, scoring with an acrobatic mid-air scissor kick that was eventually awarded after VAR checked for a potential offside.

A second-half red card to Al Nassr’s French defender Aymeric Laporte gave Al Riyadh even greater hope of holding on for a major upset, but Luis Castro’s side denied its capital city rivals with almost the last kick of the game. Saudi striker al-Nemer has found opportunities difficult to come by this season due to Al Nassr’s glut of goalscorers, but the 20-year-old netted his first senior goal, capitalising on Campaña’s 97th-minute fumble to poke in at the back post, just ahead of Ronaldo.

It was a heart-breaking end for Al Riyadh, though Odair Hellmann’s team still appears to have the best chance of staying up given it sits 14th in the table heading into the final game of the season.

Abha dramatically out of drop zone

Level on points with Al Riyadh, but a place behind courtesy of the worst goal difference of any of the relegation candidates, is Abha. South African coach Pitso Mosimane was brought in to keep the club afloat and remarkably - despite some heavy losses in recent weeks - Abha is currently out of the drop zone, ascending at precisely the right time.

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Last week Abha was thrashed 5-1 by Al Ahli but on Thursday against Al Khaleej its players kept fighting right to the end and were rewarded with a sensational 94th-minute winner from Fabian Noguera. Abha had taken a first-half lead through Francois Kamano after the Guinean forward fizzed a low half volley into the corner after his initial freekick hit the Al Khaleej wall.

The visitors responded with a second-half equalizer from Al Khaleej midfielder Abdulla al-Salem, a former Saudi Pro League champion with Al Nassr in 2018-19, who scored only his second goal of the season to make it 1-1. Al Khaleej dominated the match but was made to pay for not taking its chances as Argentine defender Noguera slammed the ball in off the post in stoppage time - sparking jubilant celebrations from Abha’s players and fans.

Abha has arguably the most favorable of all the final-day fixtures as it faces already-relegated bottom club Al Hazem but Mosimane’s side has been incredibly unpredictable since he arrived in January and it remains to be seen if it can produce the result needed to extend its stay in the Saudi Pro League to a sixth successive season.

Best of the rest

Abha was replaced in the relegation places by Al Tai, which sunk to 17th place after falling to a 3-1 defeat to new champions Al Hilal. Despite already securing the Saudi Pro League title, Al Hilal coach Jorge Jesus continues to show his opponents no mercy - persisting with starting his star names as he aims to maintain momentum heading into the upcoming King’s Cup final against Al Nassr.

Al Tai, which claimed a surprise 3-1 victory over Al Fateh last week, was simply no match for Al Hilal’s heavy hitters. Captain Salem al-Dawsari set Al Hilal on its way with a swerving left-foot strike, before Michael rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home and Malcom slid in a third shortly into the second half. Andrei Cordea scored for the visitors but it was one of just two shots on goal for an Al Tai side that was never really in the match.

The other club fighting for its Saudi Pro League survival is Al Akhdoud and it missed a golden opportunity to claim a win on Thursday at home to Al Wehda. Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo put the visitors 1-0 up with a smart low strike on 12 minutes but from that point on Al Akhdoud dominated. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Alex Collado equalized but try as it might, Noureddine Zekri team couldn’t find the decisive second goal.

In a mouthwatering final day showdown, the two clubs currently in the relegation zone - Al Akhdoud and Al Tai - do battle with Saudi Pro League survival on the line. A draw could be enough for Al Tai to stay up - if Al Riyadh loses - but Al Akhdoud must win to stand any chance of remaining in the top division.

Read more:

How Al Hilal won the Saudi Pro League title

Joel Robles on Al Qadsiah’s promotion, facing Messi and hopes for Saudi football

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