By Martin Lowe
It’s that time of the year again, where (for the majority) the season is winding down with titles being won and lost, relegation places are being settled and the money spinning world of Champions League qualification becomes a reality. One league schedule that stood out this weekend was that from the Saudi Pro League. With two matches to go, two teams could’ve lifted the trophy, defending champions Al-Nassr and unbeaten Al-Ahli who have been in sparkling form both domestically and in Asian continental competition.
Al-Nassr, often the poorer relations in the Saudi capital Riyadh, would have to overcome their city and stadium-share rivals Al-Hilal in the clear game of the weekend, and it wasn’t to disappoint. After a characteristically rough match which boiled over on a number of occasions, Nassr secured a deserved 1-0 victory and eventual title, with Ahli slipping up at home.
One man’s performance encapsulated the spirit of not just this battling defensive performance but that of Nassr’s who season, that of keeper Abdullah Al-Enezi. He came up with solid stop after solid stop in the first period, before going on to pull off the spectacular in the second, culminating with a great double reflex save half way through the second half to keep yet another clean sheet for the International.
Al-Enezi has been in typically fine form for the last two seasons with Nassr, clinching two titles in two years after just under a decade of missed chances in the SPL title race for the club. Last night’s crucial clean sheet also took him one step closer to personal glory, clinching his 10th clean sheet of the campaign, edging clear of Al-Ahli’s Abdullah Al-Maiouf in that particular shootout.
His peak in form couldn’t have come at a better time, as the national team gear up for World Cup qualification next month in all sorts of chaos. While keeper Waleed Abdullah remains the outstanding first choice, if and when the new incumbent to the hottest of hot seats arrives at the Green Falcons, Al-Enezi will be up to challenge if a fresh approach is needed to the Saudi defence.
His general demeanour on the pitch splits many however, often blowing hot and cold in his very own exuberant style. Any keeper that wears a short sleeved shirt, paired with old style goalkeeper trousers automatically catches the eye. His flamboyant saves alongside his constant mix of berating with encouragement of his defenders in front of him makes for a crowd favourite, while his tendency for play-acting, which again was on display against Hilal will continue to infuriate the opposition.
It was typical of Al-Enezi’s heroic persona around the club that with 10 minutes to go he refused to be stretchered off with a thigh injury, only to collapse in pain twice before being forcibly hauled off. He wasn’t to exit there, as he refused to be carted off back to the changing rooms, demanding to be treated on the side of the pitch so he could then be called upon as a poleaxed cheerleader as Nassr clinched the title.
Al-Enezi’s upward form can be attributed to an unexpected source in the shape of legendary Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita of Scorpion kick fame. The unmistakable look of Higuita was proudly strolling around the Nassr technical area during the fiery derby, and was seen given advice to Al-Enezi in the tunnel prior to the game. For a naturally eccentric keeper such as Al-Enezi, there can’t be a more apt mentor than Higuita, and ever since the South American was instilled as goalkeeping coach in 2012, Al-Enezi has gone from strength to strength for Nassr.
Back to the game itself, which itself will be talked about (albeit for the wrong reasons) for years to come. Nassr’s eventual winner, early on from hotshot striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi should’ve been chalked off for offside, before Hilal were denied a clear penalty before the break. Referee John Beaton, a Scot, flown in especially for this tie to remain impartial, proved his SAFF employers to be misjudged in his temporary appointment. Beaton clearly wasn’t familiar with the overly physical nature and growing petulance in the SPL game. Immediately he was out of his depth, in a culture he clearly didn’t understand, culminating with him brandishing 8 cards in the last 10 minutes of the match.
Saudi international striker Nasser Al-Shamrani, a player with a less than reputable discipline record, was fortunate not to see red in the first period for an attempted “head-butt” of sorts, before defender Mohammed Jahfali saw red for the same incident early in the second period. By the end, Saud Khariri picked up an honest red (if there ever was one) for a last man challenge before Salem Al-Dawsari was sent off in the last minute for yet another head butt, this time on referee Beaton, before chasing the Scot around the pitch. Such ugly scenes should have serious consequences for both the player and the club, but one things for sure, the Riyadh fans will not be seeing John Beaton’s face again as the Scot happily returns home.
Al-Hilal’s thuggish behaviour that ended the match threatened to spoil Al-Nassr’s day, but as the whistle blew and news filtered in from Jeddah, a title party brought a smile to the home fans’ faces. While Al-Ahli have become somewhat of a neutral’s favourite for their long standing unbeaten record and impressive performances on the continental stage, Al-Nassr proved too experienced a foe and crucially collected 3 more victories when Ahli slumped to a worrying amount of draws. Consecutive 1-0 derby victories over Hilal will be highlighted as the key points to Nassr’s title defence, while in both encounters one man will be thanked above all, that of the flamboyant but fabulous Abdullah Al-Enezi.