While Bafetimbi Gomis and Odion Ighalo get the goals and the headlines for Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, respectively, it may be Al-Ittihad defender Ahmed Hegazi who makes the difference in Saudi Arabia’s title race this season.
That is the opinion of Rhys Williams, and he should know. Al-Qadisiyah’s Australian center-back has faced both Al-Ittihad and Al-Shabab in recent weeks and is gearing up to take on Al-Hilal on Saturday.
The battle for the Saudi Pro League (SPL) title is now a three-way race thanks to the form of Al-Ittihad who have come up along the rails to third place and within striking distance of top spot.
Last week, defending champions Al-Hilal won 4-2 at Al-Wehda to go above Al-Shabab on goal difference after the long-term leaders lost 2-1 at Al-Ittihad.
That win means that Al-Ittihad, who were almost relegated last season and won just three of the first 10 games this time around, are just four points off pole position and in great form after collecting 12 points from the last five games.
It is, according to Williams, no coincidence that the Jeddah giants have become resurgent after the arrival of Hegazi from West Bromwich Albion in late October, a decision that Slaven Bilic, then coach of the English Premier League team, publicly disagreed with.
“Hegazi has come in and made a massive difference,” Williams, who played under England coach Gareth Southgate at Middlesbrough, told Arab News. “He has a big presence in defense and provides the stability and leadership that they needed. You can see the quality he has, and the team has.”
Williams saw it first-hand on Feb. 28 as Al-Ittihad traveled to Al-Qadisiyah and won 4-1. It was an impressive performance and result, given that the hosts had not lost in 2021.
Williams said: “They came along and beat us well and that was our first defeat in 12 or 13 games. It was a big loss at home, and we could see that they have come along leaps and bounds since the start of the season.”
With seven games remaining, Al-Ittihad have hit form at the right time.
“Al-Ittihad are a dark horse. They also beat Al-Shabab last weekend and that has really opened things up. In this league you never know what will happen and any team can drop points.”
Williams has already spent three years in Saudi Arabia and noted that he and his family love life in the eastern city of Alkhobar. With the team safely in mid-table, though with an outside chance of a top-four finish, the former Australian international can focus on enjoying the last quarter of the season and what is shaping up to be a classic title race.
“It has been great, and it is hard to say what will happen. It has been cat and mouse for a while between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab and both have their strengths,” he added.
Williams has first-hand experience of facing some of the most talented strikers in Asian football. Al-Shabab were already going well when they loaned striker Odion Ighalo from Manchester United in February.
“Al-Shabab are well-suited to do well and bringing in Ighalo gives them something extra. They have been impressive this season and are a very tactical and technical team.”
Argentine star Ever Banega has caught the eye with his playmaking abilities. “He is threading passes through for Ighalo and others.”
Last week Al-Qadisiya hosted Al-Shabab and after taking a first-half lead were on course for a famous win until Turki Al-Ammar earned a point for the Riyadh club in the final seconds. Williams was not too down-hearted, however.
He said: “It was a tough game for us. We started well in the first half but in the second half we had our backs to the wall. We held out until the 92nd minute when they scored but we will take the draw against a strong team like that.”
Al-Hilal may have just gone into first place but have not been as dominant this time around as was the case last season.
Last month the champions fired head coach Razvan Lucescu and replaced the Romanian with Brazilian boss Rogerio Micale. There have been reports in South America however that Al-Hilal want to tempt Marcelo Gallardo from Argentina’s River Plate to Riyadh.
Amid such instability, the fact that the team are now in first place is impressive.
“They haven’t been at their best this year and recently got rid of their manager, but they still have Bafetimbi Gomis. He is always capable of scoring,” Williams said.
It will be up to the Al-Qadisiyah defender to stop the former French international this weekend.
“It will be a big challenge for us against such a strong team. We have to put our best foot forward and if we play to our best then we are capable of getting a result. We are looking to finish as high in the table as possible.”
The next few weeks are set deliver a three-way race to the finish line that the SPL has not seen for some time.