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Relentless Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal defeat Al-Nassr: 5 things learned from SPL’s latest action

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

1. Al-Ittihad look like champions

That was the feeling at the end of their victory. The fans, who created a great atmosphere, the coaching staff and the 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 victory that champions produce.

The Tigers, who had won 11 of their last 12 league games, were ahead against Damac but simply couldn’t break the deadlock. As the game entered the final 15 minutes there was frustration in the air but the ball then passed to Fahad Al-Muwallad and the winger beat Moustapha Zeghba at the near post. Victory was confirmed only four minutes later as Abdulrahman Al-Aboud drove home a second opportunist.

The mood was celebratory and even though Damac fended off a goal and there was 10 minutes of added time, Al-Ittihad took the points and tightened their grip on the title chase. All they have to do now is keep their cool.

2. Al-Hilal still has 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 the trophy doesn’t stay in Riyadh. Just after beating Al-Shabab 5-0 to put a massive dent in the ambitions and confidence of these challengers, they went on to defeat Al-Nassr at four.

Al-Hilal has this ability to get into big games and get a result. Sometimes they do so with a scrappy last-minute victory or, as was the case on Thursday, by sweeping the opposition, taking advantage of mistakes with ruthless efficiency.

The goals were a real treat for the supporters dressed in blue. First there was a low shot from Matheus Pereira to the face of the goal and into the bottom corner. Then Salem Al-Dawsari shot twice from the edge of the area, one curler and one that flew like an arrow. A painful night for Al-Nassr ended with Odion Ighalo adding a fourth to complete a smooth move. When the pressure is on, whether in Asia or at home, Al-Hilal are used to delivering.

3. Al-Nassr out of the race

Although they have won nine and in the last 11 league games, Al-Nassr don’t look like champions and that’s because both losses were important: 3-0 against Al-Ittihad and now 4- 0 against Al-Hilal. Facing the two best teams in the country, the Yellows don’t quite have what it takes to lift the trophy this year and defensive gaps have 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 themselves too much to do earlier in the season. Now, however, they are 10 points behind Al-Ittihad after playing one more game. There is no coming back from that. If the leaders only win four of their remaining eight games, there’s nothing Al-Nassr can do about it. Under coach Miguel Angel Rosso, the focus will be on preparing for next season.

Going forward, 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 still finished first and although the same result took place in December, Al-Hilal are now in a better position in the league.

Compare that with the recent victories of Al-Hilal. In October they triumphed in the huge AFC Champions League semi-final clash and in December knocked out Al-Nassr from the Copa del Rey. At the moment, Al-Hilal has the upper hand in this rivalry.

4. Local players grab the headlines

It is true that much attention is paid to the array of foreign attacking talent that is on display in Saudi Arabia, talent that is now unmatched anywhere else in Asia. It’s natural for these stars to make headlines as they also score most of the goals. On Thursday, however, the domestic forwards deserved the applause.

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

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

Because it is not only expensive foreign stars who win titles; they cannot make a difference without a strong core of domestic talent.

5. Next comes the extra large

Big games come and go and next Tuesday there will be a huge one as Al-Ittihad, the team with the trophy in sight, take on defending champions Al-Hilal in Riyadh. This is the game fans have been waiting for months and it promises to be the game of the season.

The equation is simple. If Al-Ittihad win then they will be 17 points ahead of the defending champion whose two games less will make no sense.

Still, if Al-Hilal can pull off a win, which would be a fifth consecutive win under new coach Ramon Diaz, then there can still be hope. There may be a doubt that enters the minds of the Tigers. Al-Hilal must win, no less and the title is surely that of Al-Ittihad. This is a game not to be missed.

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