Al-Hilal kicked off their defense of the Saudi Professional League (SPL) title with a narrow 1-0 win over promoted Al-Ain at King Saudi University Stadium in Riyadh, but the winners of a record 16th league title only last August had a far-from-easy ride against a team playing their first ever top flight match.
A goalless first half had seen Răzvan Lucescu’s team dominate the majority of the possession, and have a goal by Omar Kharbin ruled out for offside, while Al-Ain patiently sat back and looked to hit the champions on the break from one of their rare counterattacks.
Al-Ain played commendably in the opening period and Niger international Amadou Moutari in particular stood out for the visitors as they worked diligently to keep a clean sheet against a team many expected to stroll to an easy opening day win.
However, with Al-Hilal clearly the fitter and more technically superior of the two teams, it was only a matter of time that Al-Ain’s defense would be breached.
The breakthrough came only three minutes into the second half, Ali Al-Bulaihi bundling in Sebastian Giovinco’s free-kick from close range. It looked like normal service would be resumed, but Al-Hilal, despite continuing to dominate, struggled to create too many clear cut openings.
On 75 minutes Lucescu introduced the trio of Jang Hyun-soo, Mohammed Al-Breik and the club’s French top goalscorer Bafétimbi Gomis (for Kharbin), and the latter had a chance to double the lead immediately but placed a very presentable chance just the wrong side of the post.
Strangely, that proved to be the prelude to Al-Ain’s best spell of the match, the team with barely any pre-season training to speak of finally throwing caution to the wind and ensuring that the champions would not close out the match with the ease they had been expecting.
But despite getting into a few promising attacking positions, Al-Ain failed to trouble Al-Hilal’s goal and the home team were glad to hear the final whistle.
“This for our fans, we miss them,” match-winner Al-Bulaihi said. “This was a very tough start, but we got the three points so we’re thankful.”
Al-Hilal had spent the latter part of the summer taking part in the AFC Champions League in Qatar, which meant several players were missing through injuries or were being rested.
“Though we missed some players, the replacement players are always ready to take their opportunities when they come,” Al-Bulaihi added. “We might miss two or three players, but we always play with the usual Al-Hilal character.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed Ashraf was pleased to help Al-Hilal to winning start after spending last season on loan at Al-Faisaly.
“We’re happy with our efforts and the first three points of the season,” he said. “We only trained for five days after returning from Qatar. Five days wasn’t enough, but thankfully in the end our efforts produced the result we wanted. If you win the first match, it gives you momentum going forward.”
“The loan to Al-Faisaly was so I could get more playing time,” Ashraf added. “It makes a big difference to play rather than sit on the sidelines. I feel I gained a lot from the experience and I’m glad to be back home. Today I’m glad to be one of the group who got the three points.”
Al-Ain’s Moroccan international Mohamed Nahiri admitted that his team knew exactly what to expect on their debut in the Saudi top flight.
“In truth we are very happy to be playing in the Saudi Professional League,” he said. “You can see the difference in standard here, playing against Al-Hilal is not easy. But we performed well and were up to the task, and hopefully we will make the Al-Ain’s fans proud.”
Earlier Al-Wehda overcame Al-Qadisiyah 2-1 in sensational style at King Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium, Dimitri Petratos and Ahmed Abdoh Jaber scoring in the 90th and 95th minute to break the resilience of the gallant visitors, who had taken the lead through a 31st minute penalty by Hassan Al-Amri.
In the other two matches of the opening day of the SPL season, Al-Shabab defeated Abha Club 1-0 thanks to a first half Makhete Diop goal; and Al-Taawoun and visitors Al-Faisaly shared the points after Iago Acevedo dos Santos’s goal for the home team was cancelled out by Igor Rossi Branco’s 80-minute strike.
The remainder of match day one fixtures, which will take place on Sunday, will see Al-Nassr host Al-Fateh; Al-Ahli visit Al-Batin; Damac at home to Al-Raed; and Al-Ittihad hosting Al-Ettiofaq.