It is second against fourth in the Saudi Professional League on Thursday but the game between Al-Shabab and Al-Hilal is bigger than that and not just because it is a Riyadh derby.
Both teams need to win if they are to keep title hopes alive and victory would be especially sweet for Al-Shabab, for many reasons.
Much has been said about Al-Hilal, who return to league action after a gap of almost four weeks. In that time they have been at the FIFA Club World Cup, with experiences both very good and very bad, dismissed coach Leonardo Jardim, appointed Ramon Diaz and have fallen 16 points behind leaders Al-Ittihad.
All the spotlight on their Riyadh rivals is probably going to please Al-Shabab. The 2012 champions have been moving under the radar to an extent and it has been almost unnoticed, and certainly underreported, that the team have gone 17 games unbeaten. That run has taken last season’s runners-up back into second place with the only problem being that Al-Ittihad have won their last ten and are seven points clear having played a game fewer.
There was a slight hiccup in January as the team drew three games in succession and after dropping those six points, Al-Shabab lost the league’s then top scorer Odion Ighalo to Al-Hilal. Plenty of teams around the world would miss the Nigerian striker, who arrived in Riyadh last year straight from Manchester United, though since his departure the six-time champions have won both games 2-1 against Al-Hazm and Damac, helped by a goal in each game from Luciano Vietto who arrived from Al-Hilal. It would not be a surprise if the Argentine made the difference, especially as he already seems to be working well with his talented compatriot Ever Banega. If Al-Shabab can cut the supply to their former star striker they will go a long way toward winning and it will also add an extra frisson of pleasure.
While the unbeaten run is impressive, there are issues at the back with no clean sheets in the past seven games, though performances even in seemingly narrow wins against Damac were more dominant than the scorelines sometimes suggested with the impressive Banega pulling the strings. Al-Shabab have what it takes to give Al-Hilal a bloody nose and virtually knock the champions out of the title race. It would be especially satisfying to get revenge for the end of last season. Al-Shabab were very much in the hunt for a first title for nine years when they hosted Al-Hilal on May 7 but were thrashed 5-1 by the visitors. Had Al-Shabab won that game, they would have been crowned champions.
There is another aspect to this meeting. The focus will be on the new coach Diaz but many thought that Al-Shabab were also going to change their boss earlier this season. Carlos Inarejos left at the end of last season and in came Pericles Chamascu who did a great job taking Al-Faisaly to the King’s Cup last season, the club’s first major trophy in their history. Yet after just one win in the first six games, there was major pressure on the 56-year-old and many thought that Chamascu would be out on his ear — after all, Al-Ittihad made the change after just one league game. The Brazilian stayed and the team have not lost since September.
As big as this game is, it will be reduced in significance somewhat if Al-Ittihad defeat Al-Taawoun a little earlier on Thursday. An 11th straight win would put the Tigers 10 points ahead of Al-Shabab with the same games played and 19 ahead of Al-Hilal having played three games more. It is very difficult to imagine then that either challenger could stop the Jeddah giants winning a first title since 2009.
The team are on fire and have been strengthened this year by adding Abderrazak Hamdallah. More impressive is that despite the absence of the hugely influential Ahmed Hegazi in defense (AFCON and injury) and, further up the pitch, Igor Coronado (injury), the team have continued to win and are doing so in style. This year, they have played five games, taken 15 points and conceded just a single goal and scored 12. This is title form at a time when they could have been forgiven for stumbling a little. The 3-0 win over Al-Nassr last weekend was huge.
It could be that a team such as Al-Taawoun are a danger if Al-Ittihad take their eyes off the ball. This is a team that is still in a relegation scrap but are the fourth-highest scorers in the entire league with Leandre Tawamba on 13 so far this season, just one behind Talisca in the scoring standings.
The Brazilian will be absent from Al-Nassr’s trip to Al-Batin after receiving a red card in that disastrous loss to Al-Ittihad, a defeat which sent the team down to third and nine points off the pace. Vincent Aboubakar is set to make his first start after returning from the African Cup of Nations where he ended up as top scorer.
Al-Nassr need the Cameroonian to bring his national team form back to his club and all three challengers know that with Al-Ittihad in such glittering form, there can be no more slip-ups. Yet with two of the chasing pack facing each other, someone is going to slip up.