LONDON: On Friday evening in Jeddah, Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Hilal 2-0 in the Saudi Classico thanks to first-half goals from Abdulmohsen Fatallah and Saud Abdulhamid. The result means that Al-Hilal are still top of the Saudi Pro League with 48 points from 25 games, three ahead of Al-Shabab, who face Al-Batin on Saturday. But now, Al-Ittihad in third have also closed the gap to three points.
There was much more to it than that however and there are five things we learned about the match.
1. Al Ittihad have lit up the title race
If Al-Hilal had won in Jeddah, the title race would not have been over but it would have been a major step towards another championship.
Al-Ittihad would have been out of it and the victors would have moved six points clear and while Al-Shabab have a game in hand, fixtures are running out.
Now however, it is all up in the air. Whatever happens tomorrow with Al-Shabab at Al-Batin, there are just three points separating the top three.
Ittihad are well and truly in with a chance, especially after beating the top two teams in the league inside a month.
Whatever happens from now until the end of the season, all neutrals should be grateful for this result as it means that there is going to be plenty of drama in the coming weeks.
2. Fatallah a hero at both ends of the pitch
Whatever coach Fabio Carille may have said before the match, there were concerns among fans of Al-Ittihad about the absence of Ahmed Hegazi in the middle of defense.
The Egyptian international has had a stellar season since arriving in October and has played a major part in the club’s resurgence.
With his usual defensive partner Ziyad Al-Sahafi also absent, Al-Hilal’s forwards must have been rubbing their hands with glee especially when replacement Omar Hawsawi went off injured after just 11 minutes.
In came Abdulmohsen Fatallah to play only his second match of the season.
He not only helped to keep out the increasingly desperate Hilal attacks, but he opened the scoring with a powerful header.
Before the game, nobody would have suggested that the 26-year-old would be the hero of the Classico but he stepped up when he was needed, though goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe and the woodwork helped out.
3. Carille wins the ‘Battle of the Brazilians’
Brazil exports plenty of talent around the world but there was still talk in South America about the fact that the Saudi Classico featured coaches from the country.
This time, Fabio Carille won out over Rogerio Micale.
It was the perfect performance from Al-Ittihad who were aggressive in the first half and then counter-attacked intelligently after the break as Al-Hilal pushed forwards with increasing desperation.
It was striking how well Al-Ittihad were organized at the back but flexible in attack as was shown by the boss putting Fahad Al-Muwallad in a central role late in the game where his speed stretched the Hilal defense.
The champions had the lion’s share of possession against the Tigers but were lacking in creativity when it mattered with Micale’s substitutions as predictable as much of the play.
Carille handled the absence of his star player, Hegazi, better than his opposite number managed the absence of captain Salem Al-Dawsari.
This was Micale’s first taste of this fixture and losing for the first time since 2016 will not have done his standing with the fans any good.
4. Saud Abdulhamid meant his goal
The right-back does not score many, indeed had managed just one goal before Friday, but he produced a beauty at the end of the first half.
Picking up the ball just a yard outside the area, about halfway between the touchline and the right corner of the box, everyone waited for a cross.
Instead, he fired a shot into the near top corner, fooling Abdullah Al-Mayouf in the Hilal goal. He said after the game that this was no attempt at a cross.
“I saw there was space there and I went for it,” he told television. It was a special goal and will live long in the memory.
5. Al-Shabab need to handle the pressure
The team from Riyadh have had a highly impressive season and moved into first position at the halfway stage.
But just when the prize moved to within view, the form has faltered.
Just one point from the last three games has put doubts in the minds of fans.
Now though, Al-Shabab have a second chance and can move level on points with Al-Hilal with a win against struggling Al-Batin.
This opportunity can’t be wasted especially considering what happens next.
On May 7, the top two meet. Basically, if Al-Shabab win their next two games, they will be three points clear on the summit with four games left to go.