The Riyadh Derby ended 1-1 on Monday, as the reigning champions and current leaders showed that there is not much to choose between them this early in the Roshn Saudi League season.
Moussa Marega put Al-Hilal ahead in the first half, before Carlos Junior struck early in the second to give Al-Shabab a draw that keeps them top with 19 points from seven games. They are four ahead of Al-Tai in second though both Al-Ittihad and Al-Taawoun could reduce the gap at the top to two points if they win on Tuesday. Al-Hilal are currently in fourth.
1. Al-Shabab the happier of the two teams
The leaders may have dropped points for the first time this season and it may now be 19 games since they last beat their Riyadh rivals, but they will probably be a little happier at the stalemate. Al-Hilal had more chances to score and also saw a second half penalty saved by Kim Seung-gyu. In short, the champions just about deserved to win the game, so for Al-Shabab coming back from a goal down and saving a spot kick will be satisfactory.
It was Al-Hilal who were the more desperate to win going into the game. For most teams, going three games without victory is not even a blip but for Asian football’s winning machine, it is almost a full-blown crisis. The draw also means that they are still five points behind the leaders.
Al-Shabab will see it as a test that was passed and with a home game against newly promoted Al-Khaleej to end this first stage of the season, will be confident of going into the World Cup break with 22 points from eight games. That’s title-winning form.
2. Diaz feeling the pressure
After the game, Al-Hilal boss Ramon Diaz pointed to the injuries that have robbed his team of stars including Salman Al-Faraj, Salem Al-Dawsari and Matheus Pereira and he has a point; and he also had a point in that the champions should have won. It was not a bad performance and had Odion Ighalo scored from the spot early in the second half to make it 2-0, it would probably have been three points and second place.
But it wasn’t and excuses don’t carry much weight when it comes to the most successful team in Saudi Arabian and Asian football. Diaz said that fans will really see what the team is made of when the injury situation improves but unless things get better, he may not be around when that happens.
The Argentine knows that he has to win against Al-Tai on Saturday otherwise, with the World Cup break coming up, he may well find himself out of a job. That is just the way things are at the club. The heroics of last season are in the past. After all, Diaz replaced Leonardo Jardim less than three months after the Portuguese coach led Al-Hilal to a record fourth Asian Champions League title.
3. Kim the hero for Al-Shabab
Since signing for Al-Shabab in the summer, South Korea’s No. 1 Kim Seung-gyu has had to pick the ball out of the back of the net just once in the first six games of the season.
Perhaps the international goalkeeper was slightly disappointed to be beaten at his near post by Marega in the first half, even if it was a fierce shot from close range. If so, he redeemed himself early in the second half. If Ighalo had scored from the spot to extend Al-Hilal’s lead, it would have more than likely been game over, and the whole conversation surrounding both clubs would now be very different.
Kim had other ideas and got down very well, low to his right, to push the ball out for a corner, from which he made another fine save, tipping over a shot from Michael.
Shortly after, Carlos equalized and instead of 2-0 it was 1-1. Goalkeepers don’t often make the headlines but Kim’s save was the difference between a defeat that would have been a blow to Al-Shabab’s confidence and raised doubts over their title credentials, and a battling draw that keeps them nicely placed.
4. It was a proper derby
Derbies can be cagey with teams more concerned about not losing than risking being too aggressive in search of a win. An outside observer may have expected two defenses, who had conceded a combined total of just three goals in their six games so far, to have been happy to sit back and let the backlines do their thing. That was not the case here with both teams looking to win.
Al-Hilal were especially quick out of the starting blocks, as the contest quickly became an entertaining one. It was end-to-end stuff. Marega had a shout for an early penalty for handball while Santi Mina probably should have done better than his low shot that just brushed the outside of the Al-Hilal post. There were last-ditch tackles, delicious through balls and plenty going on.
These are two of the best teams in Asia and they provided a fine advert for the Saudi Professional League.
5. Al-Tai now above Al-Hilal and now a crunch match
Objectively, Al-Hilal’s start to the season has not been bad at all as the champions have taken 14 points from seven games, a solid platform from which to move up into the next gear and mount a title challenge. Yet they are now below their next opponents Al-Tai, the team that struggled against relegation for much of last season and only finished four points above the drop zone.
Now, after a 2-0 win at Al-Raed, that started with a fine header from Guy Mbenza who grabbed his second goal of the season, Al-Tai are flying. What was even more impressive is that the team played the second half with 10 men but still kept their two-goal advantage and a clean sheet. Relegation should not be an issue this season and they currently sit in an unlikely second spot.
They go into their clash against Al-Hilal on Friday full of confidence and who knows what will happen?
And if Al-Taawoun, another relegation candidate from last season, as expected beat Abha on Tuesday, they will move three points clear of Al-Hilal, and possibly ahead of Al-Tai into second.
It is shaping up to be a very interesting season indeed.