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5 things we learned as Al-Ittihad win Jeddah Derby to storm to top of Saudi Pro League

Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Ahli 2-0 in the Jeddah Derby on Friday night to go two points clear at the top of the Saudi Professional League. The loss leaves Al-Ahli languishing just above the relegation zone. Here are five things we learned from the action.
1. Coronado exposes Al-Ahli’s Achilles heel 

All season, Al-Ahli have struggled to defend set pieces and it was a failure that was exposed in brutal fashion by Igor Coronado. While Talisca has been in fine form for Al-Nassr, there is also an argument that Coronado is the best player in the league at the moment, and despite starting the campaign late, he has already contributed three goals and six assists in his five games — a quite remarkable return. He was the difference between the two teams on Friday with his crosses creating both goals. 

Al-Ahli have had issues with concentration and positioning when the ball has come in from wide this season. We could see that this had been worked on and there was a determination to deal with Al-Ittihad’s set pieces, but in the end Besnik Hasi’s team couldn’t handle the superb delivery from the free kick for the first goal and the corner for the second — powerfully headed home by Ahmed Hegazi. Those two crosses gave Al-Ittihad the points and extended Al-Ahli’s winless start to the season to seven games. 
2. A champions-level performance from Al-Ittihad

It was a tightly fought game and Al-Ahli asked many questions of their city neighbors — and they were answered. This wasn’t a spectacular performance from the Tigers, and if they do lift the trophy at the end of the season then this is not a game that will be prominent in the memory (except for the fact that it was a derby win) but it is games like these that make all the difference. 

In a close game, moments count, and Al-Ittihad had that ability to make those differences. They were tight at the back with the defense led by Hegazi. The two midfielders, Karim El-Ahmadi and Abdulellah Al-Malki, rarely make the headlines but had to work extremely hard to cope with the Al-Ahli pressure. Coronado will get the plaudits but this was a win based on hard work, solidity and taking opportunities when they come. It was an all-round professional performance and a sign of Ittihad’s consistency.
3. Encouraging display from Al-Ahli but . . .

Nobody in Saudi Arabia is unaware of the problems that Al-Ahli have had this season. There were high expectations before the start but five draws and, now, two defeats, mean that they could drop into the relegation zone if other results go against them. 

This was perhaps the best performance of the season by the struggling team. They put Al-Ittihad under more pressure than any other team has managed this season but just couldn’t find a way through the opposing defense. There was plenty of effort and endeavour and signs of improving teamwork and fluidity.

The big question is, of course, what happens to the coach Besnik Hasi? Many felt that he would be out of a job but the management decided to give him another chance for the derby. It ended in a defeat and that would surely be that, but then this was an encouraging display. Will that be enough for the bosses? It remains to be seen.
4. International break good and bad for Al-Ittihad

With 16 points from the past six games, Al-Ittihad may not welcome the advent of the international break as Cosmin Contra will want to keep the momentum going. But more time on the training pitch won’t go amiss. Compared to Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad have fewer players on international duty and fewer sure-starters in the Saudi Arabian eleven.

Not just that, but as soon as the international break is over, the two Riyadh clubs have the small matter of the quarterfinal of the AFC Champions League. These are huge games and Al-Ittihad will be willing their domestic rivals to go all the way to the final while the Tigers can focus on racking up points at home.
5. Hasi under pressure but Chamusca’s Al-Shabab improving

Hasi is the coach under the most pressure at the moment but, if he stays in Jeddah, he will be able to take heart from the situation of Pericles Chamusca at Al-Shabab. After a dreadful start to the season, it looked as if last season’s runners-up were going to quickly dispense with the Brazilian.

Yet eight points from the past four games, with three of the opponents all in the top six, he has the team in the top half of the table and fans smiling again. Despite falling behind early against Al-Fayha, Al-Shabab kept their nerve, kept the ball and kept plugging away. The confidence in the camp is improving and the self-belief was rewarded with two goals in quick succession to secure a 2-1 win. A title challenge is unlikely though, if the holes can be plugged in defense then a top-three finish and a place in the AFC Champions League is possible.

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