DUBAI: Al-Ittihad ensured that Al-Hilal will not go into 2021 with a potential six-point lead at the top of the Saudi Professional League after securing a 1-1 draw against the champions at King Saud University stadium in Riyadh.
It could have been so much better for Al-Ittihad, having led by a solitary goal going into the last five minutes of the match.
After a disastrous 2019-20 season for Ittihad, one that saw them flirt with relegation, the Jeddah club came into the Saudi Clasico in far better shape than they had been for some time, in fifth place and with 14 points already on the board. Still, few would have expected anything other than a home-win Al-Hilal in the 10th round of the season, and last of the year.
The early stages of the match had brought few clear-cut chances, with Andre Carrillo looking lively for Al-Hilal, while Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazi, on loan from West Brom, proved a solid presence at the back for Al-Ittihad.
And it was Al-Ittihad who took the lead 20 minutes on through Abdulrahman Al-Aboud’s superb curling strike.
As expected, Al-Hilal came out for the second half with greater purpose while Al-Ittihad looked to soak the pressure and hit them on the break.
Carrillo and Bafetimbi Gomis carried the home team’s greatest threat, and with 20 minutes left Salem Al-Dawsari’s shot from inside the penalty area was deflected just wide for a corner.
Al-Hilal continued to dominate possession — and would end the match with 70 percent superiority — but this did not translate into many dangerous chances.
With nine minutes left, Nasser Al-Dawsari and Saleh Al-Shehri replaced Mohammed Al-Breik and Jang Huyn-soo as Al-Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu desperately looked to save the match.
The move paid dividends, with Al-Shehri meeting Sebastian Giovinco’s pinpoint free-kick with glancing header to secure a 1-1 draw for Al-Hilal five minutes from the end. The result leaves Al-Hilal four points ahead of second-place Al-Ahli, who have a game in hand.
“I came in pretty late in the half when were one goal down, and I had certain instructions from the coach which I will keep private,” Al-Shehri said. “I’m grateful I scored, of course we had ambitions of winning the match but a point is better than nothing.”
Ittihad captain Karim El Ahmadi was disappointed that his team did not secure the win.
“Al-Hilal had chances, but we also had chances to make it 2-0,” the Moroccan midfielder said. “To come to Al-Hilal and get a 1-1 draw against a big team is a good result. But looking at the chances that came our way, we could have won.”
He also had special praise for the team’s new-found defensive resilience.
“Al-Hilal have great control and great players,” El Ahmadi said. “You always have to double-mark their individual attackers, and we didn’t give them too many chances today. Hopefully we can win our next match. We’ve had an unbeaten run of 11 matches and we can see the improvement in the team.
Al-Hilal defender Al-Breik said that Al-Ittihad had proven a tough opponent as anticipated.
“We expected the match to be tough,” the Saudi International said. “We were hoping for a win, of course, to put more distance between us and the challengers. But today we came up against a worthy opponent, and I would say the draw was a fair result.”
Ittihad keeper Marcelo Grohe praised his teammates for their defensive solidity but felt disappointed at the outcome.
“Sadly we conceded that late equalizer but I have to congratulate the players for their positive attitude and the performance,” the Brazilian said. “A draw against such a strong team is good result. But I hope we learn from our mistakes, and we don’t repeat them in the coming matches.
He also said that the addition of Hegazi has improved the understanding and cohesion in the back line.
“There is no doubt Hegazi is a quality footballer — he’s an international plays and played in the Premier League — he’s a big player,” Grihe said. “But it’s not just him, there was an improvement in all of our defenders, and personally I’m very happy to play behind this defensive line.”
Al-Ittihad coach Fabio Carille insisted that his team did not intend to simply sit back after taking the lead, and that they had looked to increase their lead.
“We did not take advantage of our chances,” he said. “Perhaps we were missing the confidence that comes from winning regularly, but in general the team has improved significantly, especially compared to last season. It took Al-Ittihad half of last season to get 15 points and here we are now with 15 points. The difference is clear.”
Earlier in the day, 14th-placed Al-Nassr missed an opportunity to ease their relegation worries by drawing 2-2 at home to Damac, which sits one place below them in the table. Al-Shabab, meanwhile, strengthened their grip on third place with a fine 3-1 win over Al-Batin.