Al Hilal continue to prosper

Al Hilal maintained their stranglehold on the Saudi Professional League as they bagged the championship for a second year in a row and took their tally of league titles to 13, five more than closest rivals Al Ittihad.

Credit for their success must go first and foremost to coach Gabriel Calderon. This is the Argentinian’s second taste of premier league glory, having led Al Ittihad to the title in 2009, though this time round his new charges achieved the feat with two games to spare. takes an in-depth look at yet another exciting season in Saudi Arabia’s premier footballing league.

Total dominance
After Al Hilal’s commanding display last year under coach Eric Gerets, when they finished the season nine points clear at the top of the table with 19 wins to their name, many doubted that Al Hilal could ever rise to such dizzy heights again.

When Gerets left to coach the Morocco national side it was even suggested that the Belgian had taken Al Hilal’s chances of league victory with him. Calderon, however, had other ideas. Taking full advantage of the galaxy of stars at his disposal he led the Saudi giants first to victory in the Crown Prince Cup and then to the top of the league table.

In the ninth match of the season the champions pushed Al Ittihad into second place and never gave it back. They showed impressive form in the first half of the season, winning nine games and drawing four, and they continued as they had begun, adding another ten victories and three draws to their tally.

Their season-end 13-point lead over their closest rivals surpassed the achievements of the previous year and added further lustre to a glittering season in which they qualified for the AFC Champions League Round of 16.

Al Ittihad outshone yet again
The administrative stability enjoyed by Al Hilal continued to elude rivals Al Ittihad, who have seen three coaches come and go in the two seasons since Calderon left at the start of the 2009/10 season. His first replacement was fellow Argentinian Enzo Trossero, whose brief stint at the club ended when the side were knocked out of the 2010 AFC Champions League.

The board’s next signing, Manuel Jose, looked promising, but in late 2010 the experienced Portuguese coach handed in his resignation and returned to his former side, Egyptian superclub Al Ahly. The gauntlet was taken up by another Portuguese national, Antonio Oliveira, but although Al Ittihad qualified top of their group in the AFC Champions League and took second spot in the Saudi Pro-League, he was fired, to be replaced last week by Belgian Dimitri Davidovic. Davidovic now faces the challenge of guiding his new side to victory in the Champion’s League, which the club last won in 2005 under Anghel Iordanescu.

Disappointment for the big clubs
Two-time league winners Al Ittifaq have always been considered the dark horses of the Saudi premier league. After finishing a disappointing ninth place in last years competition, this season saw a resurgence of the Dammam-based outfit, who pushed past a number of bigger sides to claim third spot and a place in the AFC Champions League 2012. Their success was built around their stellar record at home, where they won a league-topping nine matches, though credit is also due to Tunisian coach Youssef Zouaoui.

For the league’s traditional heavyweights, however, this season will be one to forget. For the second year in succession Al Shabab took fourth place, no closer to the title they won in 2006 though they could draw some consolation from the guarantee of a place in next years AFC Champions League.

Fellow Riyadh club Al Nasr fared little better, slipping two places to fifth in the table and failing to qualify for Asia, while Jeddah’s Al Ahli reprised their finish from last season with sixth place. For former Crown Prince Cup holders Al Qadisiyah there is no consolation. They will be dropping down to the second division next season in the company of Al Hazm, who won only once in 26 outings and conceded a massive 70 goals.

Al Hilal might have won the league, but neither of their strikers feature high on the list of goal scorers. Star forward and Saudi Arabia international Yasser Al Qahtani is ranked ten on the list a full six goals adrift of top scorer, Al Shabab’s Nasser Al Shamrani.

Alongside Al Qahtani’s marksmanship, the league champions have been indebted to their midfield maestro, Sweden international Christian Wilhelmsson, whose nine assists are more than any other player in the league, not to mention six goals of his own, a tally he shares with team-mate and fellow midfielder, Romania’s Mirel Radoi. The most active player in the team has been South Korean defender Lee Young-Po who has racked up 2,017 minutes on the pitch this season.

Al Ahli’s Brazilian striker Victor Simoes has been in prolific form this season, but his side’s sixth place finish suggests his 16 goals have been a lone effort. Al Wehda have been similarly reliant on Muhanad Asiri’s 14 goals, a tally he shares with Al Ittihad’s Mohammad Al Rashid and Al Ittifaq’s Yousef Al Salim.

Making points
The 64 points amassed by Al Hilal are a league record, the first time the 56-point barrier has been broken. Not surprisingly, the club also had the strongest attack and defence, netting 52 goals and conceding a miserly 18. Calderon had this to say in response to his team’s performance: “I’d like to thank all the players for the effort they put in this season and which has brought them two major trophies. Al Hilal is a big club and it expects to win. We’ve had our share of problems but we’ve pushed ahead and come back with some pretty satisfactory results.”