Al-Ittihad’s Derby joy: 5 things we learned from latest round of Saudi Pro League action
Saturday was another vital day of action in the Saudi Professional League with goals, drama and excitement, particularly in a remarkable Jeddah derby between Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.
Here are five things that Arab News learned.
Hamdallah hat-trick keeps Al-Ittihad on course
Al-Ittihad’s dramatic 4-3 win over Al-Ahli was huge for many reasons. Last week, the league leaders were held to a draw against Al-Taawoun, a result that ended a 10-game winning streak. Dropping more points against mid-table opposition – even if that opposition are fierce local rivals – would really have set nerves jangling. The Tigers, remember, have not won the title since 2009.
Al-Ittihad were cruising at 3-0 and then were pegged back to 3-3. It felt significant, and a potential season turning point. For the team to drop two points from such a commanding position would have given the rest of the league massive encouragement, yet they managed to conjure another late win.
This had so many talking points, the most one obvious one being that in 90 minutes of fine attacking play from both teams, Abderrazak Hamdallah scored three goals. The Moroccan’s smart finish after seven minutes started it all and then his bullet header shortly after provided daylight. And then, in injury time, he kept his cool to score the biggest penalty Al-Ittihad have had for a long time.
Hamdallah may divide opinions but eight goals in six league games since joining in January tells its own story, and the injection of goals into the team has been crucial.
Pereira shines as Al-Hilal win again
Al-Hilal defeated Al-Hazm 2-0 to make it three wins out of three for Ramon Diaz since the Argentine arrived. That is nine goals scored and just one conceded. While it is likely too late for the defending champions to catch leaders Al-Ittihad, there is always a chance if the leaders falter.
Victory against the bottom club at home may have been expected and delivered but it was far from easy, with the visitors having chances throughout the game. If they had shown a little more composure in front of goal it could have all finished differently.
The performance of Matheus Pereira will have pleased the new coach. Many have felt previous boss Leonardo Jardim did not get the best out of the talented Brazilian playmaker but he made both goals here. His first assist was a beauty, a chip over the defence to leave Andre Carrillo with just the goalkeeper to beat, even if Hazm gave too much space. The second, late in the game, was also easy on the eye. Pereira collected the ball, turned to run at the defence and his layoff to Moussa Marega at the edge of the area gave the Malian the chance to seal the three points.
Aboubakar rescues Al-Nassr
Al-Nassr had to beat a solid Abha team to stay in the title race and did just that, running out 2-1 winners. There was more to it than that, however. The Yellows needed a 97th minute winner from Vincent Aboubakar, his second goal of the game, to claim the three points. The Cameroonian striker has found the net three times in his two starts since returning from the African Cup of Nations, where he was the top scorer.
He had a little luck with the first being deflected into the net but the second came with what was almost the last kick of the game. It was a classic striker’s goal as he ran on to the ball on the left side of the area to fire home a first-time shot. It kept Al-Nassr in the title race.
If the league’s joint top scorer Talisca does not get the goals, somebody else will step up to do what needs to be done. It means that the nine-time champions have won nine of their last 10 games. Had that defeat to Al-Ittihad been a victory then everything would be looking very different now and the Yellows would be the talk of Saudi football.
Al-Ahli almost pull off the impossible
There had been the usual comments before the game that in derbies the form book goes out of the window and, eventually, that was the case in Jeddah as Al-Ahli fought back from 3-0 down against Al-Ittihad to make it 3-3 before losing to a late penalty. There was much to like, however, about the performance by the team that still is not free from relegation concerns.
In the first half, Al-Ahli struggled to live with the leaders’ movement in attack, but pulling a goal back just before the break provided hope and then an early header in the second changed everything. Then Al-Ahli were going toe to toe with the leaders. There was confidence, energy and belief, even more so when Mohammed Al-Majhad (who picked up the ball after a beautiful Filip Bradaric dummy) curled home a delightful strike with 17 minutes remaining to level the scoreline.
At that point, Al-Ahli felt they could win and without VAR would not have conceded the late penalty given for handball. There was even time for them to have their own video review for the same offence at the other end. Whatever happens, if the Greens can match this level of intensity and energy in the coming weeks, they will be looking up the table and not down.
There is still hope for the chasing pack
Al-Ittihad are seven points clear of Al-Nassr at the top with eight games to play, one more than their rivals. It is obviously a very strong position to be in as the season enters into the final quarter. It would take an Ittihad implosion for the team not to take the title now but stranger things have happened.
Defensively, there were some issues that will give hope to upcoming opponents Al-Shabab and Al-Hilal. The good news for the chasing pack is that Al-Nassr as well as Al-Hilal are in good form and winning games. If they could just get a little closer to the leaders then the pressure of trying to win a first title in over a decade could come into play.