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Saudi Classico offers Al-Hilal last chance to halt march of runaway leaders Al-Ittihad

RIYADH: One of football’s oldest adages is that, as a coach, you should never go back, and Al-Hilal fans were underwhelmed in February when Ramon Diaz returned to Riyadh for a second spell at the club.

Now, however, the Argentine’s record is played four, won four with 14 goals scored and just one conceded. That is impressive, especially considering that there were two games against Al-Nassr, currently third in the Saudi Pro League, and a meeting against Al-Shabab in second.

On Tuesday, however, the coach really gets a chance to show that the cliche is not always true with a meeting against Al-Ittihad, the runaway leaders in the SPL. The Jeddah giants may be on course for a first title since 2009 but they are missing key players through injury and will surely be delighted to leave the capital with a point.

This Saudi Classico is eagerly awaited and not just because it should have taken place earlier in the season but was postponed due to Al-Hilal’s international commitments.

The equation is simple: If Al-Hilal are to have a chance of successfully defending their title then they have to win. A look at the standings shows why. Al-Ittihad are in first place with an impressive 54 points from 22 games with the reigning champions sat fourth in the table and a massive 14 points behind. The only saving grace is that Al-Hilal have two games in hand.

Victory would reduce the gap to 11 points and provide a glimmer, just a glimmer, of hope for the chasing pack that includes Al-Shabab and Al-Nassr, eight and 10 points behind, respectively, though games are starting to run out as the season enters its final quarter.

If Al-Hilal can emerge triumphant from this Classico then it does not mean they will have a great chance of winning the title, but it will at least put some pressure on the leaders who have won 12 out of their last 13 league games and are looking unstoppable.

Diaz’s men may be some way behind, though continental and global commitments have made it a hectic season, but they have shown in recent weeks that they are still more than capable of winning the big games.

There have been Riyadh derbies against Al-Shabab and Al-Nassr, both higher in the table, that ended in 5-0 and 4-0 wins, respectively. Al-Hilal may be fourth but with their games in hand and current form, look the likeliest challengers to the Tigers – but only if they win on Tuesday.

The signs are promising for the 17-time champions, not least, because the game is in Riyadh and just as Al-Ittihad’s fans created a fantastic atmosphere in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Damac, they need to do something similar as they have done over the years for the big games. That should happen as all tickets at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium were snapped up within one hour of going on sale with the 22,500-seat stadium at full capacity after the Ministry of Sports announced at the weekend the end of all COVID-19-related restrictions on attending sporting events.

Both teams have injury issues, but Al-Hilal’s would appear to be a little less serious. Right-back Mohammed Al-Breik is out and there are some long-term absences in midfield to the likes of Abdullah Otayf, Nasser Al-Dawsari, and Abdulelah Al-Malki, but Diaz still has some selection headaches.

Salman Al-Faraj is set to return to midfield, but Diaz has placed trust in fellow South Americans Gustavo Cuellar and Andre Carrillo who have both impressed in recent games, as has Matheus Pereira who has been given more responsibility behind the front line. With opposition defenders having to deal with Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega, and Salem Al-Dawsari in attack, then there are possibilities for players coming from deeper to have a major impact.

Al-Ittihad’s injuries seem a little more fundamental, running through the spine of the team to leave coach Cosmin Contra with plenty to ponder. Star center-back Ahmed Hegazi has yet to return from the injury he picked up while with the Egyptian national team at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, and fellow center-back Omar Hawsawi faces a late fitness test.

Playmaker Igor Coronado has not played this year, though still is the third-most-prolific assist merchant in the league, and while the talented Brazilian is close to a return, this game is likely to be a little too soon. And star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah is out with a hamstring problem. With the Moroccan scoring eight goals in the seven games since joining the Jeddah giants in January, much will depend on Romarinho who has been ever-present this season.

Yet even with the influential Brazilian, Al-Ittihad are in a rare position this season. The Tigers are going into this game as underdogs but that may suit them just fine. All the pressure is on Al-Hilal who know that nothing less than a win will do, or they can almost certainly kiss goodbye to their title.

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