Glory for Al-Hilal as win over Al-Faisaly secures third Saudi Pro League title in row

RIYADH: Al-Hilal defeated Al-Faisaly 2-1 in Riyadh on Monday night to be crowned champions of Saudi Arabia for a record-extending 18th time. They finished two points clear of rivals Al-Ittihad, who were held to a goalless draw by Al-Batin. Meanwhile, the defeat doomed Al-Faisaly to relegation.

Two goals from the league’s leading scorer, Odion Ighalo, gave coach Ramon Diaz’s team an 11th win in their last 12 games as they secured the top spot for a third successive season in a campaign that was the longest in league history, after kicking off in August last year.

It is a fantastic achievement for the Asian champions, who trailed Al-Ittihad by 16 points in February when coach Ramon Diaz took over.

Ighalo’s 22nd goal of the season, after just seven minutes, eased any early Al-Hilal nerves at the King Fahd International Stadium. The former Manchester United striker turned and fired home from close range after a smart pull-back from Brazil’s Michael.

The second strike, four minutes after the hour, came from a similar move: This time Michael beat two defenders on the right and squared the ball to Ighalo, who swept home.

The game, and the title race, seemed to be all over but then, with 20 minutes remaining, the visitors silenced the already celebrating home crowd when substitute Clayson arrived late to meet a perfect Khalid Al-Kabi cross from the right and send a powerful header past Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

Suddenly there were signs of tension among the home fans as Al-Faisaly, who needed a result to guarantee top-tier football next season, pushed forward in search of an equalizer and a potentially decisive point.

The closest the men from Dammam came was deep into injury time, when a shot from Julio Tavares was cleared off the line — with the visitors claiming a hand had been used. This has been a season with plenty of last-minute drama and hearts were in mouths as Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos studied the pitchside monitor. He waved away the desperate Al-Faisaly appeals and, after no less than 10 minutes of added time, it was all over.

It was a frantic end to a frantic season and the celebrations reflected the champion’s relief and delight at one of their more unlikely title triumphs.

The victory meant that that there was nothing Al-Ittihad could do in Jeddah, because Al-Hilal had the better head-to-head record. Nevertheless, the former’s goalless draw with Al-Batin was a disappointing end to a campaign that promised so much.

The Tigers dropped 13 points in their final eight games, a run that cost them what would have been their first title since 2009. They huffed and puffed against Al-Batin, who narrowly avoided relegation, but were unable to break the deadlock.

It was a terrible night all round for Jeddah clubs as 2016 champions Al-Ahli were relegated to the second tier for the first time in club history. A goalless draw against fourth-place Al-Shabab condemned the 2012 Asian Champions League finalists to the drop.

It was a tense 90 minutes at the bottom half of the table on Monday, with seven teams facing the possibility of the drop going into the final game. But when the dust had settled, it was Al-Faisaly, Al-Ahli and Al-Hazm who were relegated.

Al-Taawoun ensured their survival with a 1-1 draw at Damac, who finished in fifth position, while Al-Tai guaranteed their safety with a 3-0 win over Al-Hazm, their third victory in four games. Al-Raed defeated Abha 1-0, a result that ensured the top flight survival of both teams, while Ettifaq scrambled to safety thanks to a 1-0 win at Al-Feiha.

Al-Nassr ended their season in third place after a 2-1 win over Al-Fateh but it was elsewhere in Riyadh where the real celebrations, and the strains of “We Are The Champions,” could be heard.

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