SPL Week 34: Al Hilal undefeated, Ronaldo wins Golden Boot, Abha and Al Tai relegated

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

Matchday 34 brought the season’s final round of fixtures as champion Al Hilal officially completed an invincible campaign, Cristiano Ronaldo finished as the Saudi Pro League’s top scorer and Al Akhdoud and Al Riyadh secured their top-flight survival at the expense of relegated Abha and Al Tai.

Al Hilal ends season undefeated

Newly crowned Saudi Pro League champion Al Hilal has broken records galore in 2023-24, posting a historic winning streak and finishing with more points (96) than any club has ever managed before. The final milestone eluding this remarkable team was to finish the campaign without suffering a single defeat; only Al Wehda stood between Al Hilal’s aspiring Invincibles and an unbeaten season.

As it has done with relentless consistency this season, Jorge Jesus’ side delivered another positive result in Makkah – its 2-1 victory representing a 31st three-point haul from 34 matches. Only Damac, Al Fayha and Al Nassr have managed to claim draws from a Al Hilal side about which it is difficult to find many more superlatives.

Saudi midfielder Mohammed Kanno has not always been granted the level of game time he’d have liked this term, due to the impressive form of Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but the 29-year-old has always been reliable when called upon. He broke the deadlock early in the first-half to ease any potential pressure Al Hilal may have been feeling. It was a goal made in the Kingdom as Kanno’s Green Falcons team-mate Salem al-Dawsari whipped the ball in for the midfielder to head home.

Al Wehda leveled on 77 minutes as winger Yahya Naji scored for the first time since August but Al Hilal was determined not to let its season end with two dropped points. Aleksandar Mitrovic has rescued the champions myriad times and he did it once again with a stoppage-time winner – guiding in a header from right-back Mohammed al-Breik’s cross. It was Mitrovic’s 28th goal in 28 games; an outstanding debut return that in most seasons would have seen him win the Golden Boot.

Next up for Al Hilal is a shot at the domestic Treble as it faces Al Nassr in the King’s Cup final in Jeddah on Friday.

Ronaldo makes history with Golden Boot

He may be 39 years old but Cristiano Ronaldo is still hoovering up the individual accolades deep into the twilight of his career. Al Nassr’s talisman would no doubt have preferred to have a Saudi Pro League winner’s medal around his neck but the Golden Boot provides some comfort as a consolation prize. In his first full season in the Kingdom, Ronaldo has been utterly prolific – mirroring the sort of scoring form that made him a hero at Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

The Al Nassr skipper added another two to his collection in his side’s 4-2 final-day victory over Al Ittihad, leaving him with a barely believable total of 35 goals in 31 games – seven ahead of closest rival Mitrovic. It means Ronaldo set a new record for the most number of goals scored in a single Saudi Pro League season, beating the 34 netted by Morocco international Abderrazak Hamdallah in 2018-19.

Ronaldo set Al Nassr on its way moments before half-time against Al Ittihad, impressively chesting down a hopeful long ball before rifling a left-foot shot past Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed al-Mahasneh. In the second half, Ronaldo drew a last-ditch foul from Suwailem al-Manhali, who was promptly red carded for being the last man.

Three minutes later, Al Nassr No. 7 had his second goal, a thumping header from Marcelo Brozovic’s corner the ninth time this season Ronaldo has scored more than once in a single Saudi Pro League game.

The Portuguese superstar was promptly withdrawn, rested ahead of the King’s Cup final, and it meant that team-mate Abdulrahman Ghareeb was on penalty-taking duties in the 79th minute, successfully converting to put Al Nassr 3-0 up.

Late Al Ittihad goals from teenager Farhah al-Shamrani – scoring in his second successive match – and Fabinho made for a slightly nervy finish for the hosts, but Meshari al-Nemer added a fourth for Luis Castro’s side, which finished in second place – 17 points clear of nearest rival Al Ahli.

Al Akhdoud and Al Riyadh survive

With the Saudi Pro League top three set in stone a few weeks ago, it was always the battle for top-tier survival that was going to throw up the most drama on the season’s final day. In a nail-biting relegation showdown between Al Tai and Al Akhdoud, it was the latter that emerged as 2-0 victor, thus leapfrogging its opponent to secure its place in the division.

The aptly named Saviour Godwin began Al Akhdoud rescue mission just before half-time and it was captain Leandre Tawamba who netted the all important second, showing power and poise to escape his marker and finish shortly after the interval. The final whistle brought jubilant scenes, punctuated by the brilliant celebrations of Al Akhdoud coach Noureddine Zekri who, resplendent in his flat cap, sprinted joyfully around the pitch.

Al Akhdoud’s victory meant that Abha needed to win away at bottom-of-the-table Al Hazm to secure its own survival.

However, the seemingly favorable fixture failed to materialize for Abha as Al Hazm claimed only its fourth victory of the season to give its home fans one final Saudi Pro League hurrah despite demotion.

At one stage, Abha – 1-0 up thanks to Ahmed Abdu’s goal – were safe but the team’s defence, the division’s worst by some distance, let it down once more. Strikes from Muhammaed Badamosi and Mohammed al-Thani handed Al Hazm a 2-1 win and consigned Abha to relegation to the Saudi First Division.

Thanks to Abha’s loss, fellow struggler Al Riyadh would have been safe whatever its result but the team from the Saudi capital snatched a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Al Khaleej.

Birama Toure converted a nerveless 68th-minute penalty to put Al Riyadh ahead and Andre Gray then scored what proved to be the winner following Abdulla Al Salem’s late spot-kick for Al Khaleej.

Ex-Watford striker Gray has netted a number of important goals for Al Riyadh this season but none was more vital than this. Once more the final whistle brought a memorable coaching celebration as Al Riyadh’s Odair Hellman hopped, skipped and jumped to join his players on the pitch.

Best of the rest

Al Taawoun wrapped up a hugely impressive season with a 1-0 win over Al Ettifaq that guaranteed Pericles Chamusca’s side a spot in the first season of the AFC Champions League 2. Right-back Abdulmalik Al-Oyayari doesn’t score many goals but amazingly netted his second in as many games – the Saudi’s 90th-minute strike ensuring that Taawoun finished fourth.

Despite defeat to Taawoun, Al Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard guided his team to a respectable sixth-place finish in his debut season in the Saudi Pro League, secured after rival Al Fateh fell to a 3-2 defeat to Al Shabab.

Elsewhere, Al Ahli underlined its third-place finish with a 1-0 victory over Al Fayha. A late goal from Roberto Firmino was enough for Matthias Jaissle’s side, which has performed superbly on its return to Saudi football’s top table. Algerian star Riyad Mahrez has been a vital part of the success, finishing the season with a division-high 13 assists. A year after being promoted from the Saudi First Division, Ahli qualified for continental competition, the AFC Champions League Elite, for the first time since 2021.

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