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Al-Ittihad relentless, Al-Hilal thrash Al-Nassr: 5 things learned from latest SPL action

RIYADH: There were two huge games on Thursday in the race for the Saudi Professional League title. Leaders Al-Ittihad defeated Damac 2-1 to move 10 points clear at the top of the table. Al-Nassr stayed second despite being thrashed 4-0 by Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal. The defending champions are still in fourth and 14 points behind Al-Ittihad but have two games in hand. Here are five things we learned about the latest action.

1. Al-Ittihad are looking like champions

That was the feeling at the end of their win. The fans, who created a fine atmosphere, coaching staff, and players are starting to believe that the league trophy is coming to this corner of Jeddah for the first time since 2009. And the victory over Damac was the kind of win champions produce.

The Tigers, who had won 11 out of their last 12 league games, were on top against Damac but just could not break the deadlock. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, there was frustration in the air but then the ball broke to Fahad Al-Muwallad and the winger beat Moustapha Zeghba at his near post. The win was confirmed just four minutes later as Abdulrahman Al-Aboud bundled home an opportunistic second.

The mood was celebratory and even though Damac pulled a goal back from the spot and there were 10 minutes of injury time added, Al-Ittihad took the points and tightened their grip on the title race. All they have to do now is hold their nerve.

2. Al-Hilal still have that big-game magic

The defending champions may not win the title this year but as the season enters the final stages, they have done a great job of ensuring that the trophy does not stay in Riyadh. Just after thrashing Al-Shabab 5-0 to put a massive dent in the ambitions and confidence of those challengers, they then put four past Al-Nassr.

Al-Hilal have that ability to rise to the big games and get a result. Sometimes they do so with a last-minute scrappy win or, as was the case on Thursday, by sweeping the opposition aside, taking advantage of mistakes with merciless efficiency.

The goals were a real treat for those fans dressed in blue. First there was a low Matheus Pereira shot across the face of goal and into the bottom corner. Then Salem Al-Dawsari fired home twice from the edge of the area, one a curler and one that flew like an arrow. A painful evening for Al-Nassr ended with Odion Ighalo adding a fourth to finish off a flowing move. When the pressure is on, whether it is in Asia or at home, Al-Hilal have a habit of delivering.

3. Al-Nassr out of the running

Despite having won nine and of the last 11 games in the league, Al-Nassr do not look like champions and that is because the two defeats were big ones: 3-0 to Al-Ittihad and now 4-0 to Al-Hilal. Against the two best teams in the country, the Yellows have not quite got what it takes to lift the trophy this year and defensive lapses allowed Al-Hilal to take the lead and take control.

Al-Hilal’s victory surely spells the end this time for a team that gave itself too much to do earlier in the season. Now, however, they are 10 points behind Al-Ittihad having played a game more. There is no coming back from that. If the leaders win just four of their remaining eight games, there is nothing Al-Nassr can do about it. Under coach Miguel Angel Rosso, it will have to be all about preparing for next season.

In the future, they will also have to find a way to beat Al-Hilal when it really matters. Al-Nassr may have won in the league clash in February last year, but Al-Hilal ended up finishing first anyway and while the same result occurred in December, Al-Hilal are now better placed in the league.

Contrast that with Al-Hilal’s recent wins. In October, they triumphed in the huge clash in the semi-final of the AFC Champions League and in December dumped Al-Nassr out of the King’s Cup. At the moment, Al-Hilal have the upper hand in this rivalry.

4. Local players making headlines

It is true that much attention is given to the array of foreign attacking talent that is on display in Saudi Arabia, talent that is now unmatched anywhere else in Asia. It is natural that these stars get the headlines as they also score most of the goals. On Thursday, however, domestic attackers deserved the plaudits.

Al-Dawsari came back into the Al-Hilal team after being rested in last weekend’s game, scoring two fantastic goals against Al-Nassr that took the game away from the opposition. The winger has had another outstanding season and in a team that also boasts former English Premier League talents such as Pereira and Ighalo as well as ex-FC Porto star Moussa Marega, many now see him as the team’s best player, and one of Asia’s finest.

And while Al-Ittihad have the likes of Abderrazak Hamdallah and Romarinho in their ranks, it was Al-Muwallad who scored what is likely to be a crucial goal in the history of this season and it was Al-Aboud who sealed the win.

For it is not just expensive foreign stars who win titles; they cannot make a difference without a solid nucleus of domestic talent.

5. Next comes the really big one

The big games are coming thick and fast and next Tuesday there is a huge one as Al-Ittihad, the team with the trophy in sight, take on the defending champions Al-Hilal in Riyadh. It is the game fans have been waiting on for months and it promises to be the game of the season.

The equation is a simple one. If Al-Ittihad win then they will be 17 points ahead of the title holder whose two games in hand will be meaningless.

Yet, if Al-Hilal can get a victory, which would be a fifth straight win under new coach Ramon Diaz, then there may still be hope. There may be doubt that enters the minds of the Tigers. Al-Hilal have to win, anything less and the title is surely Al-Ittihad’s. It is a game not to be missed.

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