Al-Hilal v Al-Ittihad, Tuesday 16th May 2023, 9.30pm

The biggest game in Saudi football is between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad. They are the two most successful clubs in the country by a long way and as the biggest teams in the two biggest cities, Riyadh and Jeddah, it’s a classic rivalry. It’s known as El Clasico over here, although Madrid and Barcelona may well raise a collective eyebrow at the borrowing of the term.

As befits the occasion ticket prices had risen from the usual twenty riyals for Al-Hilal home games to a still reasonable, I thought, ninety-two riyals.

I arrived with an hour to go to kick-off and it was busy outside. The usual scarf and flag sellers were out in force and most had supplemented their usual stock with some Al-Ittihad gear.

Whilst Al-Hilal don’t have much to play for in the league, Al-Ittihad were five points clear of Al-Nassr with just four games left. An away win would just about settle things. The rivalry was enough to guarantee a competitive game though and with Al-Hilal fresh from their Kings Cup victory it was Cup winners v Champions-elect.

Once inside I bought myself a shawarma and made my way up the six flights of stairs to the top tier. The away fans had around a quarter of the ground, and it seemed that most of them had brought a flag. Others had sneaked flares in with them, an impressive achievement given the body searches at the entrance gates, and we were treated to a display in the moments before kick-off.

Al-Ittihad settled first and seemed to have far too much space in the final third. They quickly went a goal up and then added a second on the half-hour.

Al-Hilal got a foothold after a VAR awarded goal where the keeper tried to push out a cross that ended up at his near post. The fans around me were adamant that it had crossed the line, but the players didn’t make much of a fuss. The action went on for a good three minutes before the ref received a whisper in his earpiece and belatedly pointed to the centre spot.

Surely a goal-line issue has to be settled quicker than that? There was an appeal for a pen just before half-time that was turned down but when the ref blew for the break everyone was wondering what would happen if three minutes later the VAR decided that it actually was a spot-kick? Do they come back out again? Or take it at the start of the second half?

In the second half Al-Hilal had the best of the possession and pushed for an equalizer, which finally came deep into added time when a header was saved but the rebound tucked away. The draw, plus Al-Nassr’s win, brought the title race back to life with just three points separating the top two and with three games to play.

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