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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. Romarinho opened the scoring for the hosts with a first-half penalty with Michael equalizing for the visitors just before the break. The Brazilian scored his second later in the game after Salem Al-Dawsari had put Al-Hilal ahead. The result means that Al-Ittihad are now just three points ahead of Al-Hilal with just three games to go.
Here are five things we learned.
1. Forget Liverpool, Al-Hilal are the real mentality monsters
Jurgen Klopp has used the phrase more than once to describe his almost all-conquering Liverpool team, but Al-Hilal deserve similar praise. They are a team that have been playing big game after big game for the last few weeks. The last one was painful, a defeat in the King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha last Thursday. Even worse, it came after two hours of football and a penalty shootout.
Yet somehow Al-Hilal seemed full of energy. This was a game that they had to win; if they didn’t, then their title was going to Jeddah, but they seemed to relish the pressure. The Blues have a knack for pulling out a result in a big game. Before Monday, the Tigers had lost just one league game since October — a period of seven months — and that loss was also against Al-Hilal in March. This is what champions do, produce something special when they have to. There could have been many excuses for Al-Hilal had they failed to win, but they were not needed as the holders showed they are not giving up without a fight.
2. Al-Ittihad not clinical enough
The major difference between the two teams was that Al-Hilal had seven attempts on goal and scored three while the hosts had 13 but managed to find the back of the net on just one occasion. The likes of Romarinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah and Igor Coronado have all had great seasons in the yellow and black but could not make a difference in attack this time.
Perhaps the banned winger Fahad Al-Muwallad could have made a difference as the chances came and went. One that sticks in the mind came early in the second half when Hamdallah took the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf outside the area. His goal-bound shot was cleared in impressive fashion by Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi.
Perhaps the Moroccan could have taken the ball a little further, and he will look back and think that he should have scored. Other chances came and went, but not long after Hamdallah missed that opportunity, Al-Hilal took the lead and were soon 3-1 ahead. It was a major turning point in the game and perhaps the title race.
3. Al-Ittihad now have to fight for the title
There are two major positives for Al-Ittihad to take from this game. The first is that they are still three points clear at the top of the table with three games remaining, and that is a position they would have loved if it had been offered at the start of the season.
Then there is the fact that they don’t have to play Al-Hilal again this season. The Tigers’ remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the table, and there is no reason why they can’t get the required seven points to get their hands on that trophy. But it remains to be seen how the team bounce back from this defeat.
A first title in 13 years was within their reach. Now, it is likely to go down to the wire, and that is when the pressure can produce strange outcomes. The Jeddah giants have yet to really be placed under any serious pressure since moving into pole position, and now they can feel Al-Hilal just behind them. Now Al-Ittihad are going to have to fight for the title.
4. Al-Dawsari and Michael rise above
Salman Al-Faraj and Abdullah Otayf offered a cool presence in the middle for Al-Hilal but as often happens, the headlines go to the people who scored.
Michael had his best game since making his debut in February. The Brazilian forward from Flamengo was a lively presence in attack with his running and pace causing all kinds of problems for the Al-Ittihad defense, not allowing them to get a moment’s rest. His two goals were both extremely well-taken. The first was a volley from the edge of the area, and the second was a low shot from a similar distance in the second half.
And there was Al-Dawsari. His goal that gave Al-Hilal the lead was a thing of beauty. It could almost be described as a running semi-bicycle kick from the edge of the area. The celebration upset the home fans, but they could not deny that they had seen a moment of real quality.
5. The result is great for the neutral
If Al-Ittihad had won, the title race would have been over a month early. Attention would have had to switch to the fierce relegation battle. Now, however, there is the promise of more drama to come, and the talk from both sides after Monday’s game has been about three cup finals left in the season.
Fans around the world watched the final day of the English Premier League action with Manchester City and Liverpool providing plenty of action and excitement. On June 23, there could be something similar in the Saudi Professional League.
The focus now switches to next weekend when Al-Hilal take on Abha and Al-Ittihad travel to Al-Tai. Both sets of fans will be keeping an eye on what happens in the other game, and the country will also be watching. Whatever happens, Saudi Arabia now has a genuine title race after for so long it looked as if the trophy was going to Jeddah. It probably still will be now there is doubt, and where there is doubt there is excitement and drama.
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