Since its inaugural campaign in 1976, Saudi Arabia's domestic league title has been monopolised by the desert kingdom’s elite clubs Al Hilal, Al Ittihad (Jeddah), Al Nasr, Al Ahli and Al Ittifaq. But with the conclusion of this season’s proceedings this exclusive group must make way for a new member after Al Fath entered the history books with their first-ever championship.
Given the big clubs’ traditional domination of the competition, it seemed certain Al Fath’s promising start would at some point fizzle out. Indeed, much of the attention stayed focused on the threat presented by title-holders Al Shabab and leading all-time league winners Al Hilal, both of whom remained in contention until the last two games of the season.
Al Fath, hailing from Saudi’s Eastern Al Ahsa province, were equal to the challenge however. Proving that the first half of their season was no fluke, Tunisian coach Fathi Al Jabali and his charges continued to rack up points against all comers, with Al Nasr the only heavyweight able to resist their powers.
Following Al Fath’s first result of the season, a creditable draw with Al Nasr, the club claimed six straight wins - including against Al Hilal and Al Shabab - before their momentum was checked by a 0-0 draw against Al Faysali. Undaunted, Al Fath responded with another run of four victories to close the opening half of the season in top spot.
Long time observers of the Saudi league remained convinced that the inexperienced front-runners would stumble in the finishing straight, but coach Al Jabali kept his players razor-sharp - with his side treating each match with admirable intensity. Opening their second-half of the season account with another draw against Al Nasr, the side then gave notice of their intent to take the title thanks to three wins in a row, doling out a second defeat to Al Hilal in the process.
A draw with Al Ahli and a loss to Al Shabab then hinted that the naysayers may have been right and dreams of glory premature, but Al Fath dug deep and quieted all the doubters. A second unbroken run of six wins followed, including the victory over Al Ahli which sealed the title and sparked wild celebrations in the stands of the Prince Abdullah Bin Jawali Stadium in Al Ahsa.
Big guns misfire
For Saudi’s major clubs, this season told a tale of disappointment, as their plentiful resources and star-studded teamsheets were unable to check the rise of Al Fath’s young pretenders. Al Hilal ended the season in second place, eight points off the top, while last season’s champions Al Shabab took third, level pegging on points with Al Hilal. They were though, along with Al Wehda, one of only two sides to defeat Al Fath. The top three all qualify for the AFC Champions League 2014.
After last season’s seventh-placed finish, Al Nasr will likely be happy with their fourth-placed position in the table, one ahead of Al Ahli - who failed to translate their AFC Champions League form into domestic honours. Sixth place was filled by two-time league champions Al Ittifaq.
Al Ittihad (Jeddah) have won the league eight times and expectations were high that they would do well this year. As a result, ending their campaign in seventh with eight wins, eight losses and a paltry 31 points to their name came as a severe blow to fans and management alike. Qualification for the Saudi Champions Cup at least gives them a chance of some silverware to make up for their poor league performance.
Nearly relegated from the Zain Saudi Professional League last season, eighth-placed Al Ra’ed put in some excellent performances this term. Their efforts were crowned by qualification for the Champions Cup. This puts them in the company of the country’s six biggest clubs, offering them opportunity of emulating Al Fath and springing yet another surprise on the established footballing powers.
A number of players caught the eye this season, none more than Argentinian Sebastian Tagliabue, whose move from Al Ittifaq to Al Shabab has paid off handsomely. The South American frontman topped the goalscorers’ list with 19 strikes to his name, two ahead of Al Fath’s Congolese hitman Doris Fuakumputu - whose prolific partnership with Brazil’s Elton played a major role in their side’s successful challenge.
Al Hilal can be similarly thankful to the pairing of Wesley and Yasser Al Qahtani, whose 30 goals made up more than half of their side’s total for the season. Another Brazilian, Al Shabab’s midfield wizard Marcelo Camacho, topped the list with 15 assists, one more than Al Ahli’s Taisir Al Jassam, who was aided and abetted by Victor Simoes.
“A lot of factors played a role in this winning this title. It’s the fruit of eight years' hard work. We’ve been able to build a complete team with great ability and potential, and our efforts have been crowned by winning the first league title in the club’s history,” Al Fath coach Fathi Al Jabali.
20 – The number of wins achieved by Al Fath this season, breaking the previous record of 19, jointly held by last season’s champions Al Shabab and the 2010/11 winners Al Hilal.