It’s on. For a few days at least, Saudi Arabia has a title race. Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ettifaq 2-0 on Wednesday to close the gap behind long-time leaders Al-Ittihad to six points with four games of the season remaining.
In most cases that wouldn’t be cause for too much excitement but the top two meet on Sunday in a Classico that should be an occasion to remember. If Al-Hilal can go to Jeddah and win then anything could happen in the ensuing three games. If Al-Ittihad take the points then they will be virtually assured of a first title since 2009 and even a draw would surely leave the defending champions with much to do.
Wherever the trophy ends up, Jeddah or Riyadh, at the end of this month this game will not be long remembered by fans. It was a win that sets up the Classico, it was also a deserved and necessary win but there was little drama with the visitors having more than 70 percent possession and the hosts, who are fighting relegation and still just one point clear of the drop zone, looking to hit on the counter.
The first goal came on the half-hour from an unlikely source. Jang Hyun-soo headed a corner into the direction of the top corner and there was central defensive partner Ali Al-Bulaihi to nod home from close range for his second of the season. The delighted celebrations of the pair were probably the highlight of the game. Five minutes after the restart, Michael took a tumble in the area and Odion Ighalo fired home from the spot to record his 21st goal of the season and that was that.
“We controlled the match as we wanted to do,” Diaz said. “The players were tired and fatigued but stepped up when it was needed. It is an important win in the race for the league title and we will fight for that, as well as the cup until the last minute of the season.”
The Argentine was right to praise his players. Compared to Al-Ittihad’s six games in April and May, Al-Hilal have no less than 14. For such a schedule to come at the end of the season has placed demands on the team.
Missing midfielders Abdulellah Al-Malki, Mohamed Kanno, Gustavo Cuellar and Matheus Pereira, the coach went with two strikers with Ighalo and Abdullah Al-Hamdan in attack and Moussa Marega and Michael out wide.
At least captain Salman Al-Faraj returned to the middle after missing the 4-2 win at Damac four days earlier and with long-term injury absentee Abdullah Al-Otayf coming off the bench before the hour mark, Al-Hilal were able to show their strength in depth.
“With all the absences, the coach has worked hard to prepare the substitutes,” said goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, who kept his ninth clean sheet of the season. “At Al-Hilal, everyone in the squad has to be ready to come in and do a job at any time and we showed that tonight.”
That will be tested again on Sunday. There may be some good news about the midfield but there is some bad news about the defense. Al-Bulaihi went off injured in the second half and is a serious doubt for the weekend. With Muteb Al-Mufarrij also injured, it leaves coach Diaz short on center-backs. It could be that Cuellar could slot in alongside Jang as the Colombian midfielder has played in that position at times in the past.
Al-Ittihad have the opposite issue. Their star center-back is ready to return after almost four months out. Ahmed Hegazi has not played since January’s African Cup of Nations quarter-final against Morocco when the Egyptian star went off at half-time after sustaining an abductor muscle strain. The former West Bromwich Albion star has been back in full training and is set to start the game to try and keep out some of Al-Hilal’s attacking talent, including fellow Africans Ighalo and Marega. He may well be needed after Al-Ittihad drew 4-4 with Al-Fateh last week.
Ittihad have plenty of attacking talent of their own in Romarinho, Igor Coronada and Abderrazak Hamdallah and with Al-Hilal’s absences in midfield and defense as well as home advantage, will probably start the match as favorites. For a team that has not lifted the league trophy for 13 years, it remains to be seen how that affects the Tigers. Al-Hilal have been here before, last year for example, and know what is needed to win the title. Al-Ittihad may be about to find out. Whatever happens, however, neutral fans owe the Riyadh giants their thanks for providing the league with a genuine title race — though it remains to be seen if it is still alive after Sunday.