RIYADH: Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 2-1 on Tuesday evening in Riyadh, a result that meant the leaders are starting to look over their shoulders despite maintaining a healthy lead in the Saudi Professional League.
The Jeddah giants remain top of the table with 54 points from 23 games, eight points ahead of Al-Shabab in second, and 10 clear of Al-Nassr. Al-Hilal stay in fourth but are now 11 points behind the leaders with two games in hand.
Here are five things learned from a crucial Saudi Classico.
1. The penalty debate will go on for a long time
After 15 minutes of action, Al-Ittihad cleared an attack only for Gustavo Cuellar to fire a half-volley from outside the area toward goal. It hit Hamdan Al-Shamrani who was on the edge of the six-yard box, seemingly but not conclusively, on the arm.
The defender’s head looked to be down as he was trying to put his arms behind his back, but the ball hit him, and the referee pointed to the spot. Al-Hilal players seemed sure that it was a handball, and therefore a penalty, while the visitors were equally convinced that it was a legitimate clearance.
After a video assistant referee review, the Brazilian official upheld his decision. The debate as to whether it was the right one will go on for a long time (though not so much if Al-Ittihad go on to win the title) but it was probably not conclusive enough for the VAR technology to overturn the initial granting of the penalty. What is clear is that Salem Al-Dawsari scored from the spot in as cool a manner as is possible.
2. Al-Ittihad do not have Al-Hilal’s strength in depth
The runaway leaders may have won 12 out of the last 13 league games but Tuesday’s match showed that they do not have the strength in depth that Al-Hilal have, though there is no shame in that. The first 11 for the Tigers is strong indeed but as expected, they missed three influential players in Abderrazak Hamdallah, Ahmed Hegazy, and Igor Coronado.
Some would argue that they were without the best defender, best playmaker, and best striker in the league. What is not debatable is that any team in Saudi Arabia, as well as Asia, would miss such talent. They were also without defender Omar Hawsawi, and winger Abdulrahman Al-Aboud.
Al-Hilal have some long-term absences too but also have a stronger squad than the Tigers. Al-Ittihad need to get their stars back quickly to help ensure that this blip in the title race does not develop into anything more serious.
3. Al-Ittihad may have been too desperate
The last time that Al-Ittihad won the title was in 2009. At the time, none would have imagined that the wait for the next crown would have extended to, at least, 2022.
Did that play on the mind of coach Cosmin Contra? We will never know, but after the Tigers levelled the score on the hour thanks to Haroune Camara, they could have tightened things up a little. A draw would have been a good result for the leaders and would have ensured that Al-Hilal were almost out of the running and stayed 14 points behind.
Yet Al-Ittihad kept pushing forward and were caught out. Was it because of the legacy of not winning the championship for 13 years? It is hard to say, but the coach may reflect that he could have kept things tighter, sat a little deeper, and played on the counter as Al-Hilal pushed forward. It was Al-Hilal who needed to win this game, not Al-Ittihad.
4. Ighalo ensures that Gomis is not missed
Since arriving from Al-Shabab at the end of January, Odion Ighalo has scored four goals in four games and they have all come against the top three: Al-Shabab, Al-Nassr, and now Al-Ittihad.
That is why fans, sad to say goodbye to the legendary Bafetimbi Gomis, now have a new hero. The Nigerian does not do much in the way of spectacular but just scores goals, important ones.
There did not seem to be much danger midway through the second half when he was found by Al-Dawsari on the edge of the area. There were three defenders around him, yet the former Manchester United man took two quick touches, found just a little space, and then finished into the bottom corner.
Perhaps Marcelo Grohe got down a little too slowly, but the goalkeeper was probably not expecting a shot and certainly not one with such precision. It won the game and has perhaps done more than that.
5. This was the result the league needed
Had Al-Ittihad won this game at the home of the in-form league champions then it would have been title race over. The Tigers would not just have gone 11 points clear with seven games left but would have made a huge statement to themselves and to the rest of the league.
To themselves, it would have been a huge confidence boost in what was the toughest game remaining in the fixture list. Even a draw would have been more than satisfactory.
Now, however, the three teams just behind have a sniff of a hope and it is almost in the hands of Al-Hilal. They may be 11 points behind but have two games in hand and also face the leaders once more. Al-Shabab in second meet Al-Ittihad on Sunday and can close the gap to five points.
Suddenly it is all looking exciting and suddenly there is a little pressure on Al-Ittihad.