RIYADH: Not for the first time this season, Al-Shabab’s impressive exploits were overshadowed by the antics of one of the bigger boys in the Saudi Pro League.
Just a day after a hugely impressive 4-0 win at Al-Nassr had seen the White Lions go four points clear at the top of the standings, Al-Hilal captured the headlines by firing their coach Razvan Lucescu. That may, however, be just the way that Al-Shabab boss Carlos Inarejos likes it.
Al-Hilal are the champions and have been the league leaders for much of the current season until a run of two wins in the last nine saw the team slip from the summit. The latest setback came on Sunday with a 1-0 loss at lowly Damac during which Al-Hilal failed to register a single shot on goal. It meant that Lucescu was on his way back to Romania to be immediately replaced by Rogerio Micale.
It could be that the champions, still only five points behind Al-Shabab in third place with 12 games still to play, receive the stereotypical new manager bounce under the Brazilian who has never worked outside his homeland, but maybe not. The current leaders will not mind the spotlight being shone elsewhere.
But Al-Hilal’s decision may not be the most significant coaching change of the season. It remains to be seen how Al-Hilal manage under their new coach but Al-Shabab’s change early in January has seen the team move to the next level.
Elimination from the Arab Club Champions Cup at the hands of fellow Saudis Al-Ittihad, exit from the King’s Cup, and a downturn in league form saw Pedro Caixinha dismissed. With Al-Shabab in third, well above last season’s seventh, the decision left fans surprised but club president Khaled Al-Baltan insisted that the Portuguese boss was not getting the best out of a bunch of talented players.
“It was necessary to intervene after losing in the semi-finals of the Arab Championship. Our team is good, and there will be changes, and we are only missing a striker, and if a striker comes to us, the form will be completely different,” Al-Baltan said.
A striker did come, and a big one too, with Odion Ighalo arriving from Manchester United. As well as the Nigerian, Carlos Inarejos was promoted to the top job and the decision seems to have been inspired.
Under the young Spaniard, Al-Shabab have been almost unstoppable collecting 19 points from a possible 21 in the league. No less than 20 goals have been scored in those seven games and the Riyadh club are playing with freedom and excitement and those cup eliminations may prove to be a blessing.
The big test was surely on Saturday, an away game at 2018 champions and 2019 runners-up Al-Nassr. The star-studded club may have started this season slowly but were the league’s other form team, winning six and drawing three of the previous nine games.
Yet Al-Shabab eased to a 4-0 win in a stunning statement of intent. It was fitting that the Argentine duo, who have worked together well, had a hand in all four goals. Midfielder Ever Banega scored the opener and created the fourth and Cristian Guanca got the other two to take his tally for the season to 11.
It was an impressive performance. The visitors pushed forward relentlessly and from all areas of the pitch and while the foreigners got the goals and the headlines, full-backs Abdullah Al-Zori and Fawaz Al-Saqoor defended solidly and got forward consistently to add width and menace to Al-Shabab’s attacks. The former’s assist for Guanca’s first was a thing of beauty.
“Al-Nassr are a big team and we played well against them,” said coach Inarejos. “We were positive and defended well, and we deserved to win in the end thanks to the players’ great work, their fighting spirit, and the desire that we showed.”
Al-Shabab, who have often played without a recognized out-and-out striker this season, have not been reliant on one player for goals with the likes of Banega, Fabio Martins, Seba, and Turki Al-Ammar all chipping in with important strikes.
While Al-Shabab’s fourth against Al-Nassr merely added gloss to an already great scoreline, it was notable in that it marked the first goal from Ighalo. The Nigerian entered the fray after the hour to slot home from just inside the area late in the game. Bringing such talent from the bench shows that Al-Shabab are not only a contender but with their confidence and team spirit are the team to beat.
“We have an arsenal of players with a good bench. It is a squad game and all the players performed well and the result was an important three points,” added Inarejos.
There should be more to come. Things change quickly in Saudi Arabian football — Razvan Lucescu will testify to that — but Al-Shabab look to be the real deal and if others keep hogging the spotlight then so much the better.