Al-Hilal defeated Al-Nassr 2-0 in the Riyadh Season Cup on Thursday, just days before the Roshn Saudi League resumes after the break for the Asian Cup. It was the first chance to see many of Saudi Arabia’s best players in action again after the recent continental campaign.
That had ended earlier than had been hoped for after a penalty shootout defeat at the hands of South Korea, but while Saudi Arabian fans may have been disappointed at the national team crashing out of the continental competition, they at least welcomed the return of domestic action. And there was plenty of that to excite observers at the Kingdom Arena.
League leaders Al-Hilal may not have been at their best at the newly built arena, but they were clinical when the chances came, and are still obviously the team to beat over the rest of the season.
Two goals in the first half did the damage for the leaders, who are currently seven points clear at the top of the table with 11 games remaining.
Both the Riyadh giants fielded strong teams — Cristiano Ronaldo started the match for the Yellows — but it was the team in blue who were on top for most of the 90 minutes.
The first goal came after 17 minutes. Saud Abdulhamid, one of the stars of the Asian Cup, advanced down the right to pull the ball back toward a crowded penalty area. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic calmly stepped forward on the edge of the 18-yard box to sweep a low shot past the outstretched hand of Raghed Al-Najjar to make it 1-0.
Al-Hilal continued to stream forward and Brazilian star Malcom came close to extending the lead for the 18-time champions, though his shot from the edge of the area was well saved by the Nassr goalkeeper.
Soon after, his Brazilian compatriot Michael danced around defenders on the edge of the area only to see his final shot blocked.
The lead was doubled after 30 minutes when Salem Al-Dawsari netted a beautiful goal. Fed by Malcom, the Asian player of the year took possession 30 meters from goal and then advanced to chip a perfect shot over Al-Najjar from just outside the area. Later in the game Al-Dawsari seemed to pick up an injury but nevertheless left the pitch to a standing ovation from the Al-Hilal fans.
Al-Nassr started to impose themselves as the game wore on and Ronaldo, who had been taunted by the home fans with chants of “Messi, Messi,” became more influential.
However, Al-Hilal’s defense held firm as they dug in to show their resilience in the face of concerted pressure.
The league title is more important, though, and there is a lot of football still to be played.
Al-Hilal are still top of the standings and were superior, but Al-Nassr showed that they have what it takes to push their Riyadh rivals all the way. It promises to be an exciting final third of the season.