Al-Hilal win Clasico: 5 things we learned from latest round of Roshn Saudi League

Al-Hilal win Clasico: 5 things we learned from latest round of Roshn Saudi League
Al-Wehda beat Al-Shabab 2-1 in a major blow as the fifth combined win managed by the three promoted teams. (Twitter: @SPL_EN)
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Updated 06 January 2023

Al-Hilal win Clasico: 5 things we learned from latest round of Roshn Saudi League

Al-Hilal win Clasico: 5 things we learned from latest round of Roshn Saudi League
  • Asian and Saudi champions defeat Al-Ittihad in Jeddah on a good day for leaders Al-Nassr despite match postponement

While there has been a staggering number of headlines around the world about domestic football in Saudi Arabia due to Al-Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in the past week, there is always plenty going on in the league. Here are five things we learned from the latest day of action.

In an unprecedented week, Al-Hilal do familiar things

The tens of millions of newly interested observers of Saudi Arabian football learned a valuable lesson on Thursday: Never count Al-Hilal out. They went to Al-Ittihad and won 1-0 to move into third.

It is not that often in Saudi Arabian football that the spotlight moves completely away from Al-Hilal, the most successful club in the country’s history, as well as that of Asia. It has done just that in the past week or so, but a hard-fought victory at Al-Ittihad was a reminder of what the champions do best when the pressure is on: They win big games. 

And the pressure was on. After dropping four points from the previous two encounters, a trip to Jeddah to take on the unbeaten Tigers, who would have gone top with a victory, was a tough one indeed. Yet a 12th-minute goal, a typical strike from Odion Ighalo, now not the only former Manchester United forward in the league, who was once again in the right place at the right time, was enough to give the Blues a big result. They won the midfield battle and once ahead displayed admirable concentration and discipline.

It was a battling performance and showed that the champions will not give up their title easily. Had they lost, they could have found themselves seven points off the pace by Friday and coach Ramon Diaz would have started to sweat. This, however, was a solid performance.

Nuno Santo needs to learn how to beat Al-Hilal

After coaching Valencia, Porto, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, Nuno Santo has plenty of experience in handling pressure in the big leagues. There is something similar at Al-Ittihad, a club that is built for success but has not won the title since 2009. Getting their claws back on that trophy is clearly the major objective for the Tigers.

The problem is that to lift the title, they are going to have to beat Al-Hilal, and that is proving to be tricky. The desperation to win was there for all to see, but Al-Ittihad lacked a little composure going forward (though we’ll never know how a second-half shot from Abderrazak Hamdallah was kept out) and did not look quite so defensively solid as usual.

Last season, two defeats at the hands of the Riyadh giants cost Al-Ittihad the crown in a season when it was all almost on their head. With just one win against their rivals since 2016, the Jeddah club are going to have to find a way to break this habit. If Santo can do that, then he could be the man to end the title drought. If not, he will just join a long line of coaches who struggled with Al-Hilal and failed to bring the trophy back to the shores of the Red Sea.

Al-Shabab first powerhouse to lose to newly promoted team 

Losing 2-1 to Al-Wehda is a big blow for Al-Shabab for more than one reason. This was only the fifth combined win managed by the three promoted teams and the only one that has come against one of the big boys.

This would not be so bad for the Riyadh powerhouse if they had not just lost their previous game but one. After such a great start to the season, to drop six points in the first three games after the resumption of the campaign is a cause for concern, especially after taking the lead against Al-Wehda, a team that have been improving lately and are climbing the table.

Unlike the recent 4-1 loss to Al Fateh, Al-Shabab had chances to get something from the game and missed a number of opportunities. The first defeat was seen as a blip, but two losses against teams who are not title rivals in the space of not much more than a week is worrying. There is the small matter of Al-Ittihad next. Another loss really would be damaging.

A good day for Al-Nassr despite postponement

The focus has understandably been on the arrival of a certain five-time Ballon d’Or winner and while Ronaldo would not have made his debut against Al-Tai anyway, as he is reportedly to serve a two-match ban that was issued when he was in England and was also waiting for international clearance, it did all feel a bit anticlimactic as bad weather caused a 24-hour delay.

The game will be played on Friday, and perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. On Thursday, Al-Ittihad vs Al-Hilal was a massive game but on Friday, Al-Nassr will be the headline act. Even better is that they are still on top. Both Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad could have gone above Al-Nassr with a victory, yet both ended up being defeated. It means that victory over Al-Tai would take the Yellows four points clear. It really could be a special few days for the nine-time champions.

Damac can’t quite make that jump

It was always going to be tough for Damac to challenge for the title, but there is a danger that this season is going to follow that of the previous campaign: a solid start — even if not as spectacular this time — followed by a slowdown in results. The draw specialists had a real chance to move clear in sixth with a home game against Al-Raed but ended up losing 2-1.

It is so difficult for them to find the required consistency and the depth of squad to really make the jump from the upper mid-table places and really start challenging. The same goes for Al-Taawoun, a team that has done marvelously well at times in recent seasons but still can’t quite make the big four become a big five or six. It is much easier said than done.