RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.
Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.
It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.
Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.
But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.
The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world.
A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.
But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.
Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.
Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.
Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.
As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.
Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.
There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.
For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.