Al-Ittihad drew 4-4 with Al-Fateh on Friday night in an entertaining, match that just about keeps the Saudi Professional League title race alive. The Jeddah team are 12 points clear of Al-Hilal, who have two games in hand, with the two teams meeting next week in a vital clash. The Riyadh team will have enjoyed the sight of the leaders conceding four goals — and the look of disappointment on the players’ faces at the final whistle.
The eight-goal roller coaster was certainly an excellent advert for the league, and the action was non-stop. There was some fine attacking play from both teams, though their defensive displays did raise some questions.
Brazilian midfielder Petros scored a spectacular first for the hosts after nine minutes, a rasping volley from outside the area that flew into the top corner. Al-Ittihad responded by showing why they are on course for the championship, with Romarinho squeezing the ball home to equalize. Igor Coronado scored another for Al-Ittihad, lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and three minutes before the break Abderrazak Hamdallah headed the Tigers into a 3-1 lead. With Al-Hilal losing at Al-Feiha earlier in the week, a first title since 2009 looked a certainty.
But then Al-Fateh kicked into gear as Firas Al-Buraikan pulled a goal back on the stroke of half-time. On the hour, not long after Al-Ittihad had a goal disallowed, Sofiane Bendebka headed the hosts level. The league leaders, who had won 14 of the previous 16 league games, hit back with 13 minutes remaining as Romarinho shot from a similar position as the opener from Petros. If Al-Ittihad thought they had the game won, however, they had not reckoned with the lively Al-Buraikan, who got his second of the game after 83 minutes to ensure that the points were shared.
It was an epic game, one that both sides could have won. Al-Fateh, who stay in eighth, had more possession and plenty of chances but it was Al-Ittihad who twice let the lead slip. “I do not know where to start,” said Romarinho. “We expected to win the game and now we are disappointed to get a point. It is a draw that feels like a loss."
Al-Ittihad coach Cosmin Contra was less than happy at his team’s defensive display. In the previous 25 games of the season, the Tigers’ backline had been tight, conceding just 20 goals, and letting in four at this stage is a cause for concern. As everyone in Saudi Arabia knows, Al-Ittihad’s next game is against Al-Hilal on May 15. If they defend as they did against Al-Fateh then the gap at the top is going to shrink.
“I am concerned that we conceded three goals from set pieces,” Contra said. “This is something that could have been avoided and this is something that we need to address and work on. The important thing is that we focus on the situation and work hard ahead of the Al-Hilal game.”
It may well be that Egyptian centre-back Ahmed Hegazi comes back for that. He has been out of action since January but his return is imminent. His calming presence and authority may be exactly what Al-Ittihad need but a first game for almost four months coming in such a major encounter is a risk.
Before that, however, Al-Hilal take on Damac on Saturday and have an opportunity to cut the lead to nine points. If they do, and then defeat Al-Ittihad a week later, they will be just six points behind with a game in hand. The coming Classico is going to be massive, though Coronado was trying to downplay that side. “Al-Hilal are a very good team with great technical ability and it is a very important match but it will not decide the league.”
It may. Time and games are running out but there is still enough of both, just, to keep the title race alive.