Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday evening to keep the Saudi Professional League title race well and truly alive.
Two goals from Michael and a Salem Al-Dawsari stunner gave the visitors a come-from-behind victory in this crucial Saudi El Clasico, reducing Al-Ittihad’s lead at the top to just three points with three games of the season remaining.
It was truly a champions’ performance from the title-holders, who lost the King’s Cup final to Al-Fayha in a penalty shootout at the same venue, King Abdullah Sport City Stadium, just four days ago.
Despite the disappointment of that setback, and the fatigue, they managed to prevent the Tigers from claiming a victory that would have all but guaranteed a first league title since 2009. Now, for the first time in this run-in, the pressure is really on Al-Ittihad and it is coming from Al-Hilal.
Played out in front of a packed and passionate crowd — and featuring a pre-match tiger tifo from the home fans that was truly world class — the game was a fantastic, breathless advert for Saudi Arabian football, featuring two top teams both desperate to win. Al-Hilal needed victory to remain in the title chase while Al-Ittihad had a chance to go nine points clear with three games to go.
The first half was a tale of two penalty claims, one of which was denied after a video assistant referee intervention and one that was not. The game started at a breakneck pace to the delight of an appreciative crowd that provided the perfect atmosphere for such a big game. Every touch by a man in blue was greeted by jeers, with the cheers reserved for the heroes in yellow and black.
The roof was almost blown off in anger when the referee pointed to the spot after 12 minutes when Al-Hilal’s Michael was hacked down by Abdulrahman Al-Obud on the edge of the area. There was no doubt at all that it was a foul but the home players protested that it had happened outside the area. The VAR agreed and the free-kick came to nothing.
There was controversy at the other end after 28 minutes when a shot from Igor Coronado hit Jang Hyun-soo’s arm and the referee awarded a penalty. This time there was no intervention by the VAR, though the official did take a good long look at replays on the monitor. Up stepped Romarinho, who coolly sent Abdullah Al-Mayouf the wrong way to give his side the lead.
It was canceled out three minutes before the break. Al-Ittihad goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe came out to punch a cross clear but the ball fell on the edge of the area to Michael, who volleyed it through a crowded area and past the prone shot stopper, injured by a collision, to equalize.
There was no let up in pace in the second half. Both teams continued to push forward but just could not find the final ball to create clear chances, with defenders making important interceptions.
The most crucial of these came just before the hour mark and kept Al-Hilal level. Al-Mayouf came out of his area to clear a long ball from the Al-Ittihad half but was beaten to it by Abderrazak Hamdallah. The Moroccan’s low shot was heading for the back of the net until Ali Al-Bulaihi somehow managed to slide in and clear it to keep the scoreline at 1-1.
It did not remain that way for much longer before the champions showed their class with a stunning goal. Salman Al-Faraj’s cross from the right was headed by Odion Ighalo from the six-yard box back to the edge of the area where the onrushing Al-Dawsari jumped into the air and directed the bouncing ball into the top corner. It was a world-class finish. There were a couple of minutes of uncertainty while the VAR checked to make sure that Ighalo had been onside. It turned out he was, just.
Al-Ittihad were still recovering from that setback when they suddenly found themselves 3-1 down. It was another fabulous goal: Al-Dawsari’s pass from the right side split the defense but there was still plenty left for Michael to do. The Brazilian picked up the ball on the left edge of the area, cut inside and, despite the close attention of defenders in yellow and black, fired a low shot into the bottom corner.
That really knocked the stuffing out of the hosts and from then, of the two teams it was Al-Hilal who looked much more likely to score. With eight minutes left, Michael, who was having his best game since joining the club, again came close.
The visitors returned to Riyadh with three priceless points and, perhaps, a new-found belief in themselves that the title race is far from over.