Three takeaways as Al Hilal triumphs in Riyadh derby

In front of a vociferous home crowd at the King Fahd Stadium, Al Hilal produced a statement performance that may end up punctuating a Saudi Pro League title triumph this season, beating local rival Al-Nassr 3-0 in what had been a hotly anticipated Riyadh derby.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s towering header set Al Hilal on its way in the second half before a late brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic secured victory by a flattering scoreline. The result means the Saudi Pro League leaders have extended their lead over Al-Nassr at the top of the table to an intimidating seven points.

Here are three key takeaways from the memorable match.

Al-Nassr loses composure

The fireworks began ahead of the game as Al Hilal’s deafeningly noisy supporters – determined to create a cauldron-like atmosphere – set off a series of flares to leave the pitch swathed in pink smoke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic immediately set the game’s temperature, crashing through Cristiano Ronaldo with a robust challenge in the first minute. In the second half, in particular, the game descended into the sort of fiery encounter that fans want and expect from any derby.

Al-Nassr was chiefly responsible for the increased tension, with Luis Castro’s players becoming increasingly frustrated as they squandered numerous opportunities to equalize before Mitrovic’s late double salvo. Al-Nassr was much better value than the final 3-0 score suggests but notably lost their composure after Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal ruled out for offside.

It was admittedly a tight decision but Ronaldo, his team-mates and the Al-Nassr coaching staff all berated the referee and his assistants, surrounded by several security guards as they walked from the pitch to their locker room. A furious Castro continued his tirade in the post-match press conference, but opposite number Jorge Jesus would not be drawn on his compatriot’s response.

Al-Nassr’s Portuguese coach Luis Castro (C) argues with a referee during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on December 1, 2023. (AFP)
Al-Nassr’s Portuguese coach Luis Castro (C) argues with a referee during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on December 1, 2023. (AFP)

“It’s natural that Luis look at the game differently because he ended up losing 3-0,” Jesus said after the game. “I wouldn’t like to comment on the referee’s decisions or on any of his criticisms of referee’s decisions.”

Aleksandar the great

Al Hilal fans had already adopted Aleksandar Mitrovic as a cult hero ahead of Al Nassr’s visit but the Serbian cemented his perennial place in the supporters’ hearts with a brilliantly taken late brace to put the Riyadh derby result beyond doubt. Mitrovic met Salem Al-Dawsari’s 89th-minute corner with a glancing near-post header, and just three minutes later, he latched on to Savic’s flick-on, turning well under pressure before sliding the ball past Al-Nassr goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi.

The bond between Mitrovic, who now has 20 goals in his first 20 games in all competitions since moving to Saudi Arabia, and Al Hilal’s fans is deepening by the week. Ever the entertainer, the Serbia striker literally conducts the supporters now as part of his celebrations – the noise levels rising during his now-customary display of fist-pumping.

Mitrovic, who has plenty of experience in derby matches having played for Fulham (West London), Newcastle United (Tyne-Wear) and Partizan (Belgrade), was keen to highlight his reciprocal relationship with the Al Hilal fans and commend the role they played in Friday’s derby win.

“[It was] amazing, really amazing,” Mitrovic said after the match. “I played derbies in many countries but for sure this is not the best, for sure top, top of the list. The pressure before the game, the build-up with fans before the game [was] really, really amazing – something special. To be honest I don’t think I ever played a better derby.”

He continued, “I’m lucky that everywhere I’ve played, I always have a great relationship, but with these fans it’s amazing. Since the first day I arrived we had a really special connection. They make me happy; I hope I will continue making them happy. It’s a happy marriage.”

Attention economy

The top-of-the-table clash was the most widely broadcast Riyadh derby there has ever been as the profile of the Saudi Pro League continues to grow. In attendance in the Kingdom’s capital were a host of international media from the likes of Vietnam, Germany, the UK and France – representing the increasing global intrigue in the competition.

“This game was a very good spectacle for the Saudi League,” Al Hilal coach Jesus noted in the post-match press conference. “It was broadcast all over the world and was a great showcase for Saudi football. It was a high-quality game with high quality players. The game, until right at the end, was of the highest competitive level between the two teams.”

The return encounter may well draw as many interested attendees. While it is a long way off, if Al-Nassr manages to maintain the seven-point deficit between now and the end of the season, the reverse fixture between the sides at Al-Awwal Park – due to take place on May 24 – could be Al Hilal’s championship coronation.

For both Al-Nassr and those neutrals hoping for a more competitive title race, the result was a blow, though the club can take heart from its own failings last season, when Ronaldo and Co were chased down by eventual champions Al Ittihad when they seemed comfortably ahead. Nevertheless, Castro admitted his team now faces an uphill battle to remain in contention but insisted that they will not give up.

“It will be difficult,” the Portuguese coach said. “For every team in the championship, it will be difficult. But we push and we keep going. We keep applying pressure because it’s still a long way to go in the championship. We are going to compete.”

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