The Classico is always a huge clash but Monday’s meeting has an extra edge as it could play a key role in deciding whether the Saudi Professional League trophy stays in Riyadh or heads to Jeddah.
Leaders Al-Ittihad meet Al-Hilal holding a six-point advantage at the top of the table, with four games to play. If the Tigers beat the defending champions, then their first title since 2009 is a virtual certainty, while a draw would surely leave Al-Hilal with too much to do. However, a win for the visitors opens things up. Three points between them with three games to go would make for a fascinating end to the season.
Al-Ittihad are obviously in the better position and not just because of the cushion they have at the top. This is the business end of the season and usually games are coming thick and fast. There are injuries, suspensions and general fatigue, as well as huge pressure to deal with. That is true for one team and not the other. Al-Ittihad have played 14 games in 2022 and only two in the past two months. Al-Hilal have played 25 matches, with 11 in that period.
That means that the leaders have had to seek out friendlies to keep their players sharp. The extension to the season, due to the postponement of last week’s games following the death of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on May 13 even means that Ahmed Hegazi is fit to play for the first time this year. The Egyptian defender has been missed, especially in the team’s last match, the 4-4 draw with Al-Fateh when a 3-1 lead was thrown away. Hegazi is likely to start, as is Brazilian attacker Igor Coronado, who picked up a knock in that roller coaster encounter. Other attackers such as Romarinho and Abderrazak Hamdallah are raring to go, the major absence being that of Fahad Al-Muwallad, who was hit with an 18-month ban last week for testing positive for a banned substance.
Al-Hilal, by contrast, have all kinds of issues. On Thursday the defending champions lost the King’s Cup final to Al-Feiha. Even worse was the fact that it came after a penalty shootout which followed two hours of tense and draining football. It remains to be seen if there is a psychological reaction to the defeat but there is sure to be a physical one. In the latter stages, stars such as Salem Al-Dawsari were suffering from cramp, a sight that must have given hope to Al-Ittihad fans.
Coach Ramon Diaz has plenty of injuries, as well, to keep him busy. There are the long-term issues with Abdullelah Al-Malki and Saleh Al-Shehri. Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo has been out for a while and is still a doubt, as are Gustavo Cuellar and Yasser Al-Shahrani. Central defender Jang Hyun-soo hurt a toe in the final and missed training on Friday. The South Korean should be fit for the big game and the same goes for captain Salman Al-Faraj, who picked up a slight knock on Thursday.
But the physical side is only half the story. At this stage of the season, mental matters are crucial. While Al-Ittihad may have been able to get much more rest than their Riyadh rivals, it is hard to know how such relative inaction has affected a team that has been so close to a first title for 13 years. Being within touching distance of the trophy for so long but not having games to play must have been a frustrating experience.
They have had two and a half weeks to think about the 4-4 draw and reflect on what happened. A victory against Al-Fateh would have put the leaders eight points clear with four to play. It would surely have been all over, regardless of the Classico result.
And there is more. Al-Ittihad have lost just once in their last 17 league games. That was against Al-Hilal. To lose again would raise the prospect of the title being thrown away by a team that has been on top for around three-quarters of the season.
The chasing team, meanwhile, knows that only a win will do. The Asian champions have shown over the years that when it comes to the big games, they often to find a way. If Al-Hilal can avoid any ill effects from the King’s Cup final defeat, both mentally and physically, they have what it takes to defeat Al-Ittihad. Whatever happens, it really should be a game to remember.