Captain Carlos Eduardo came up with a decisive first-half brace when Al Hilal claimed the derby honours against 10-man Al Ittihad and control of the Saudi Professional League.
A third Saudi El Clasico in three weeks – and second in the last five days to finish 3-1 – served up a feast for the hordes packed into King Abdullah Sports City. The away side started the brighter and went ahead in eye-catching fashion when Brazilian midfielder Eduardo, 29, acrobatically volleyed home a Yasser Al Shahrani cross.
This advantage was doubled before the half-hour mark when Tigers goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni, guilty of several errors in Tuesday’s 3-1 AFC Champions League quarter-final reversal in Riyadh, spilled an Omar Khrbin shot to the encroaching Eduardo. In an opening period that contained chances at both ends, prolific Brazilian forward Romarinho found the bottom corner after a sweeping counter-attack to give Ittihad hope at 2-1.
Saturday night’s engaging contest witnessed midfielder Abdulellah Al Malki pick up a second yellow in the closing stages, before Italy maestro Sebastian Giovinco shot through the unsighted Al Qarni to seal an enlivening victory. Here are the talking points:
STRONG ADVERT FOR SAUDI FOOTBALL
Familiarity bred contempt in Jeddah this weekend.
This, however, could only be apportioned to a 59-year feud, rather than boredom from repeat recent meetings.
A football banquet was lapped up by a rowdy crowd. They gorged on wonderful goals and sparkling play, plus lashings of drama when the video assistant referee cancelled a 79th-minute penalty for a supposed foul on Itti’s busy Argentine midfielder Emiliano Vecchio by Saudi Arabia right-back Mohammed Al Breik.
Hilal had pulverised their opponents in the midweek continental decider, a 3-1 scoreline proving inadequate to emphasise the inequalities between the clubs. But with foreign quotas bolstered from the AFC’s four to the SPL’s seven, grand entertainment ensued.
Pre-match tension was also boosted by champions Al Nassr’s shock 1-0 loss at Al Hazem, while Itti sat in the relegation zone following last weekend’s 2-1 loss at promoted Damac. Victory for Hilal would gain a two-point SPL lead – and three over holders Nassr – and keep Ittihad rooted in early relegation mire.
The visitors dominated possession (59/41 per cent) and attempts (29/13) on Saturday in a repeat of the Asian action. Yet just like that game, Itti never felt out of it as they made a lot out of precious little.
Ex-Lyon centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis uncharacteristically snatched at several first-half chances and Syria forward Khrbin just volleyed wide. At the other end Vecchio blazed over and Chile playmaker Carlos Villanueva’s aim was all off in an advantageous position.
A punishing tempo – at one stage the lively Romarinho mouthed “hot” and dropped down to his knees – reduced a notch after the break. Understandable in late summer heat that pushed above 30C at kick-off.
Only when Al Malki barrelled into Hilal midfielder Mohamed Kanno, and substitute Giovinco soon latched onto a loose ball on 89 minutes, did this 154th El Clasico appear settled. These eternal rivals had provided a fine advert for Saudi football.
Crescent coach Razvan Lucescu may worry about centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi being bamboozled by Romarinho and what Xavi’s Al Sadd might do in the spaces vacated by rampaging full-backs in the ACL semi-finals.
What he can have no doubts about is skipper Eduardo’s enduring worth. The decision to reject summer advances from the Arabian Gulf League in the club’s all-time top-scoring foreigner was a wise one.
Sublime technique with a mid-air volley got the first, while pure instinct accounts for the second.
6- سجل كارلوس إدواردو أهدافاً أمام الاتحاد في دوري المحترفين السعودي أكثر من التي سجلها أمام أي فريق آخر في المنافسة (6). تخصص.— OptaArabi (@OptaArabi) September 21, 2019
Advancing years and 2017’s serious knee injury also couldn’t curtail a driving second-half run that almost earned a hat-trick. Itti must loathe his continued presence, six career goals against them representing his best return against a single club during four years in the Kingdom.
Unforeseen versatility was also shown by the Brazilian to play on the left in a 4-4-2 formation. He symbolises the desire from the runners-up under Lucescu to usurp neighbours Nassr.
ROMARINHO DESERVES A SUPPORT CAST
Itti’s revival in 2019 has been guided by Chilean coach Jose Luis Sierra’s comeback and fuelled by Romarinho’s goals.
The Brazilian moved onto three goals in three 2019/20 SPL games when he darted inside the slack Al Bulaihi and effortlessly rolled the ball in. This was just the highlight of a display that oozed menace whenever he gained possession in pockets of space, either on the flanks or in front of the defence.
His talent, clearly, isn’t matched elsewhere in the squad. Al Qarni has been to blame for four of six goals conceded to Hilal this week, while long-term Sierra soldier Vecchio’s endeavour cannot hide basic technical faults.
A disconnect between Romarinho and Serbia No9 Aleksandar Privojic was also obvious. At the other end, Morocco centre-back Manuel da Costa has been as bad in 2019/20 as he was good in the second half of 2018/19.
There is the appearance of Itti being too good to repeat last season’s serious flirtation with a first relegation. But until others step up to Romarinho’s level, they will struggle.
Asian action has left the Saudi Professional League’s giants with contrasting emotions headed into round four.
Elsewhere, the top flight’s trademark churn of coaches is now in full swing. Here are the talking points:
NASSR NEED A RESPONSE
When Al Nassr striker Abderrazak Hamdallah piquantly put fingers to his lips in celebration and shushed the Al Sadd hordes, a first AFC Champions League semi-final seemed a certainty.
The value of this away goal was, though, stripped away in a ruinous 3-1 defeat. Cold analysis points to Nassr’s reticence to attack, inviting pressure they could not endure with only four foreigners.
In the capricious micro-environment of Saudi football, one big loss is enough to undo great work. Tailspins swiftly gain momentum – just ask Zoran Mamic about Al Hilal.
This was still only the sixth reversal in 30 matches under coach Rui Vitoria. Faith in his project should remain steadfast though, for now, beginning with Friday’s rebound versus winless Al Hazem.
The axiom ‘too much of a good thing’ could spring to mind ahead of a third Saudi El Clasico in three weeks.
But this does disservice to how deep the fault lines lie between Al Ittihad and Al Hilal, plus the entertainment doled out in Tuesday’s Asian thriller.
August’s staid goalless 152nd derby exploded into a 3-1 second-leg win for Hilal, from which they pumped in 26 attempts. Ittihad, however, unsettled from set-pieces, rattled the woodwork via Romarinho and had goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni to blame for two goals.
What better way to gain instant revenge than derailing Hilal’s domestic ambitions?
ALL CHANGE AT THE TOP
So, it is goodbye to Al Ahli Jeddah’s disconnected Branko Ivankovic and underwhelming Al Wehda tactician Mario Cvitanovic.
And in unique Saudi fashion, both went following Wehda’s 2-1 victory at Ahli last Saturday.
For Wehda, the availability of ex-Nassr (twice) and Al Shabab boss Jose Daniel Carreno proved too tempting. A date with Fayha beckons on Friday for the Uruguayan.
Circumspection should be undertaken in Jeddah about why Ivankovic’s rampant success with Iran’s Persepolis did not translate. Caretaker Saleh Al Mohammadi will oversee Saturday’s journey to Al Fateh.
The Saudi El Clasico is sure to, belatedly, catch light when great rivals Al Ittihad and Al Hilal compete on Tuesday for a berth in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s semi-finals.
More than 54,000 impassioned fans packed into Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City experienced an incongruous and sedate goalless draw in the opening stanza. Something has to give when the action resumes at Riyadh’s King Saud University Stadium.
The attention of the Kingdom will centre on the King Saud.
It would be wrong for this gaze to fixate, alone, on foreign ranks which contain the likes of ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis and prolific Brazilian forward Romarinho. The passions of this 69-year-old rivalry are uniquely Saudi – it would be fitting if locals decide it.
Forgotten superstar Nawaf Al Abed’s fine opener versus Al Fayha gave a timely reminder of his talents, while goals this month from fellow winger Salem Al Dawsari earned Saudi Arabia draws versus Mali and Yemen.
From the yellow and black hordes, destiny calls for summer buy Haroune Camara. Serbia centre forward Aleksandar Prijovic’s absence from Ittihad’s reduced four-player non-domestic quota opens up opportunity.
Neither combatant can be impressed with weekend results.
The Saudi Professional League’s resumption witnessed 2018/19 runners-up Hilal drop points for the first time this term in a 1-1 draw with unfancied Fayha. This slip was inflicted on home soil, via a 94th-minute leveller from Arsenio.
Ittihad, however, did even worse. Calamitous errors from centre-backs Manuel da Costa and Abdulmohsen Fallatah gifted a landmark 2-1 victory to promoted Damac.
AWAY DAY BLUES?
Signs of potential success for the visitors are scant.
They sit 12th in the SPL and look set for another flirt with relegation, while Hilal’s potent attack puts them top. The Tigers, however, boast successive – and impressive – away Asian wins at Qatar’s Al Rayyan and Iran’s Zob Ahan.
If they make this a hat-trick on Tuesday, Ittihad’s faithful may yet be able to keep crowing about two ACL titles to their opponents’ painful zero.