LONDON: Few fixtures in Arab football are as big as the Saudi Classico.
And none will be bigger than Friday’s meeting between Al-Ittihad and champions Al-Hilal in Jeddah, a match that will go a long way to deciding the destination of the Saudi Pro League title.
Defeat for Al-Ittihad would virtually end their chances of the title, while defeat for Al-Hilal would likely wipe out their advantage heading into the stage of the season when they are really going to need it.
Al-Hilal make the trip west as leaders, three points clear of Al-Shabab in second. Al-Ittihad are a further three points back, in third place. Wins in matches between the top three really are the proverbial “six-pointers.”
With just five more games to follow, Al-Ittihad can really make the title race a three-way one if they win. If that wasn’t motivation enough, they haven’t won this fixture since 2016, a dismal run that has stretched to 11 games.
The Tigers would have accepted this position after winning just one of their first five games of the season. That start suggested that this campaign would be similar to last time around, when the two-time Asian champions finished in a lowly and unacceptable 11th spot, just three points above the relegation zone.
Coach Fabio Carille has turned things around impressively, helped immensely by the October arrival of Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazi. The problem for the Brazilian is that Hegazi is suspended.
The defender, perhaps the stand-out performer in the entire league this season, was sent off in the 1-1 draw at Al-Raed in the last round.
With central defensive partner Ziyad Al-Sahafi also serving a suspension, Carille has his work cut out in trying to stop the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis. Veteran stopper Omar Hawsawi will be drafted in.
“Obviously, we would like to have our full-strength team for such a big game,” Carille said. “We know how dangerous Al-Hilal are, but football is a squad game and we have players who can come into the starting eleven to perform well. We are looking forward to it.”
There is better news elsewhere, in that Serbian forward Aleksandar Prijovic has returned to training.
The former PAOK star, who has scored six goals this season, had been ill but should be fit to start although winger Garry Rodrigues is on standby if necessary as Al-Ittihad look to supply their star Brazilian striker Romarinho.
With the issues in defense and the importance of taking all the three points, Al-Ittihad are expected to take the game to the visitors - but Al-Hilal are not without issues.
The champions will be without captain Salem Al-Dawsari who has a ligament injury as well as young striker Abdullah Al-Hamdah, who is still recovering from the effects of coronavirus.
While the champions are in the driving seat, coach Rogerio Micale has plenty to think about.
After the trip to Jeddah, the next league game is even more crucial as it comes against second-placed Al-Shabab on May 7.
In the four weeks between the two showdowns, there is the small matter of the group stage of the AFC Champions League and six games against Shabab Al-Ahli of Dubai, Tajikistan’s Istiklol and either Al-Gharafa of Qatar or Uzbekistan’s AGMK.
Earlier this week Micale announced his squad for the continental tournament that Al-Hilal last won in 2019, and the Brazilian knows that success on the both international and home fronts may depend on how he handles the squad.
“When you get to this stage of the season then you hope there are big and important games,” Micale said. “There are none more important than this one against Al-Ittihad and we will go there looking to win, as we always do, though we know it will be a tough game but when you are challenging for the title then all games are tough.”
Whatever happens, Al-Shabab in second need to take all three points on Saturday against relegation strugglers Al-Batin. Soon after the Riyadh team moved impressively to top spot just after the halfway stage of the season, they hit a bump in form. Just one point in the last three games, a run that included defeat against Al-Ittihad, means that there can be no more slip-ups.
Al-Shabab can rest in the coming weeks for their league showdown, while Al-Hilal are busy with Asian commitments. Al-Hilal, sure to be tired, will want some breathing space.
Three points on Friday will go a long way to defending the title but any slip-ups with a hectic schedule to come, and fans in Saudi Arabia can start looking forward to a thrilling final few weeks of the season.