FREE-SCORING RUN

FREE-SCORING RUN

WHO will blink first, is the question. As the Qatar Stars League moves towards a thrilling finale, probably the closest finish it has seen in the last couple of decades, there is nothing much to separate title challengers Al Sadd and Lekhwiya.

After 22 rounds, both have 53 points with 16 victories, five draws and one loss. And with just four matches to go, Sadd’s superior goal difference (+50 against their rival’s +38) or the Cops’ better head-to-head record (draw in the first phase and win in the second) are of not much significance because in case of a tie on points the title will be decided in a play-off.

And that is exactly where they are heading for.

Lekhwiya’s 2-1 victory against Al Sailiya last week had put the pressure right back on Sadd. And a trip to Al Khor, where the Cops as well as Al Rayyan both faltered this season, is not something they would have opted for, given a choice.

But Sadd made sure they avoided any sort of hiccups and continued their free-scoring run, this time pumping in four goals against their opponents.

Khalfan Ibrahim, who made a rare start this season, could have opened the scoring for Sadd in the 19th minute, but his shot from outside the area was well saved by Baba Djibril, diving to his right.

The Khor goalkeeper was unlucky moments later as Sadd forward Hassan Al Haidous’ first-time shot from just outside the six-yard box, after being fed by Xavi Hernandez, ricocheted off the near post onto his body and into the goal.

With Xavi operating in trademark fashion, Sadd enjoyed the bulk of possession, but they almost conceded an equaliser against the run of play. Bazman Khoubiari’s swerving cross had danger marked on it and when Welinton Silva met it with a diving header at the far post, it looked destined for the back of the net, but Saad Al Sheeb was equal to the task and came up with a stunning save.

After a brief period of relative inactivity, the game again came into life in the dying minutes of first half as Sadd suddenly attacked in waves. But Khor held the fort, thanks to some desperate defending including a goal-line clearance off a corner by Haitham Mohammed. 

Khalfan and Baghdad Bounedjah missed chances to increase the lead, before Pedro Miguel came up with a beautiful goal when he expertly chested down an Al Haidous cross and acrobatically buried it to the left of Djibril.

Khor came close to reducing the lead, but Saad yet again made a splendid save to deny Babou Sidiki from hand-shaking distance.

Khor soon lost heart and faded out, conceding two more goals (Welinton o.g., 79th and Hamza Sanhaji, 90th) to suffer their heaviest home defeat of the season.

With four teams set to be relegated this time, Khor, fourth from bottom, face an uphill battle to stay afloat.

Sadd, meanwhile, have a different kind of a challenge.

Their next two opponents are Umm Salal and Rayyan, and both have played prominent roles in bringing such excitement to the title challenge. While Rayyan held Lekhwiya in the 20th round, Umm Salal stopped the Cops’ unbeaten run in the very next, handing them a 3-1 defeat.

And Sadd would be well aware of the pitfalls in their way as they look to annex the title they last won in 2012-13.

In other matches, Al Arabi confined Al Wakrah to the rock bottom of the table with a 3-1 victory. Muaither, in 13th position, and Al Shahaniya, in 12th, also look destined to be doomed after both suffered defeats. While Umm Salal beat Muaither 1-0, Al Kharaitiyat defeated Shahaniya 3-1.

Elsewhere, El Jaish beat Al Ahli 2-0 and Al Gharafa halted Al Rayyan’s eight-match unbeaten run with a 2-1 victory, which all but ended their title challenge. dsp

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