Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the King Salman Cup on Saturday, just days before the start of the Roshn Saudi League. The result could have serious implications for the former and current Saudi Pro League champions in the campaign ahead.
Here are five things we learned from the first Classico of the season.
1. Al-Hilal will be greatly encouraged by the result and performance
Every observation should obviously be tempered by the fact that this was not a league game, merely a prestigious pre-season clash, but Al-Hilal will be delighted with the outcome. Last season, Al-Ittihad won the title and conceded just 13 goals in 30 games along the way. Yet in Abha, the team conceded three against an energetic Al-Hilal team.
New coach Jorge Jesus and his men won the midfield battle thanks to the discipline, energy and intelligence of Mohamed Kanno while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves are genuine top-class players and have taken Hilal’s midfield to a new level.
They combined for the first goal, and it was an effort that will please coach Jesus with Savic heading home a Neves corner. The Portuguese star offers much and was coveted by the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United, but his set pieces are going to be a real threat for opponents this season.
With Malcom, another new signing, taking his goal well to put the game beyond Ittihad, it was a fine offensive performance and a deserved win and means that Al-Hilal get another game at least to prepare for the new season.
2. It could be a useful defeat for Al-Ittihad
Fans of the Tigers may come to be happy about this loss once the real action starts. After being deserved champions last season, coach Nuno Santo now has a much-strengthened squad, but any thoughts that the arrival of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and others would mean a stroll to a second successive title will be buried a little deeper today.
Benzema, who saw his penalty hit the post with 12 minutes left, looked a little isolated in attack and was not the threat of previous games. The injury to Omar Hawsawi left the central defense struggling, especially as Ahmed Hegazi is not yet due to return from a serious injury.
So, for coach Santo, there is plenty to ponder, but better it happens now than when the serious action starts.
3. The next Classico is now even more eagerly awaited
The result means that Al-Ittihad have not beaten Al-Hilal since 2021 in a run that now stretches to six games.
Santo has now played the Riyadh giants four times since arriving in Jeddah and has failed to record a single win. As well as the King’s Cup semifinal loss, the Blues took four points from the Tigers.
It is a run that has not yet reached worrying proportions, but this season is likely to be closer than the last when Al-Ittihad pulled away at the end. Being able to beat Al-Hilal when the pressure is on could be the difference between a successful title defense and missing out.
Fortunately, or not, for Santo, there is an early meeting this season, and victory in the league could really set the tone for the rest of the campaign. It will be a massive encounter.
4. Hamdallah issue could become a distraction
Abderrazak Hamdallah was absent, and his cutting edge was missed in attack. Yet the Moroccan marksman, top scorer in the league last season, was not injured, with Santo saying that it was due to an internal matter.
There are rumors that Hamdallah, who is a strong character on and off the pitch, is unhappy with the coach and his preference for Benzema, the most recent recipient of FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, as a single striker.
Whatever the truth may be, it is an issue that the coach will need to deal with and not allow to fester. For the big clubs that will challenge on a number of fronts in the coming weeks and months — and Ittihad have the Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup to deal with as well as domestic issues — this is a squad game. It is a challenge to keep talented players happy, but this is modern football.
5. It sets the scene beautifully for the new season
There is no doubt that once the new campaign starts, this game will not be remembered for too long, but this was an appetizer that really got the juices flowing in anticipation. In recent weeks, there has been so much international attention on the Saudi Arabian clubs and their signing of big-name foreign stars that it was a relief to watch two of the biggest go toe-to-toe where it counts.
It was a very entertaining clash, and those who tuned in for the first time will surely have enjoyed the experience and been impressed with the standard of the game and the attacking nature of Saudi Arabian football. They will surely be returning for the start of the new season.
As Al-Hilal’s new defensive star Kalidou Koulibaly said after the game: “A magical night. But we need to stay focused and work harder and harder. Let’s keep it up!”
It was a memorable occasion but just a delicious starter for the months-long main course that it set to follow.