JEDDAH, 1 June 2007
This is the match everyone wanted to enjoy be it in front of TV screens in the comfort of their living rooms or live at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. Any which way, it will be satisfaction guaranteed as the giants of Saudi football, Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal, do battle in the King’s Cup final today.
This will be the 10th in the history of league final matches that featured both teams. Hilal hold the upper hand over Ittihad in the final matches with six wins over Ittihad against three for Ittihad against Hilal.
Crown Prince Sultan is expected to attend the final match and award the cup to the winners.
Hilal topped the Saudi Football League standings with 53 points from 17 wins, three loses and two draws. As a result, Hilal became the No. 1 and the waiting finalist in the stepladder matches. Ittihad, on the other hand, finished second with 48 points from 15 wins, three draws and four loses. Last week, Ittihad eliminated Wehda in the second stepladder match with thrilling 3-2 extra time victory.
In a very tough match two players from Wehda were red carded and one Ittihad player went down with injury. Against a well-rested Hilal side, the battle-weary Ittihad will try to use every available weapon in their arsenal though questions remain whether they would be able to keep pace with their rivals for another grueling battle.
Ittihad were the first to win against Hilal in the King’s Cup in 1997 after winning the final in Jeddah 2-0. In 2002, both teams met again in the same competition this time in Riyadh. The match ended 2-1 for Hilal with a controversial decision by the referee Dhafer Abu Zanda who denied Ittihad a penalty kick and an equalizer after Hilal defender Al-Nazhan took the ball from inside the goal with his hand and the referee did not award Ittihad a penalty kick instead gave a red card to an Ittihad defender Basem Al-Yami. For Ittihad and Hilal this is the final chance to save a winless season.
Hilal are used to winning at least one championship every year. They are now facing a serious threat of exiting the season empty handed.
Another dilemma confronting Hilal is that they will have difficulty explaining to fans how a team that emerged No. 1 all season long could lose the final match.
Still smarting from losses in the two finals against rival Jeddah- based Ahli club 3-0 in Prince Faisal ibn Fahd Cup and 2-1 in Crown Prince Cup Ittihad are under extreme pressure from fans to deliver the most prestigious cup of the season and avoid the stigma of going 0-for-three in the finals.
Either team would move heaven and earth in this high stakes match if only to address the misgivings of their loyal fans.
Both teams are expected to not rush into fast attacks and try hard to plug the gaps leading to their half side of the field for sure control the midfield.
Hilal are better experienced playing in final matches than Ittihad especially with two veterans the likes of goalkeeper Muhammad Al-Daie and former national team captain and Hilal striker the experienced Sami Al-Jaber.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the teams:
In the goalkeeping positions Al-Daie has the edge over his Ittihad counterpart Tayseer Al-Nteef. Al-Nteef has had bad experiences with former team Ahli especially in the famous final match between Ittihad and Ahli in Riyadh, which ended in favor of Ittihad 3-2. Ahli fans and sport critics blamed Al-Nteef for the three goals. The goalkeeper has a very good reputation for panicking in the final match.
In the defense line, Ittihad are the wise bets over Hilal with Hamad Al-Muntasheri, Reda Tukar, Osama Al-Muwallad, Saleh Al-Sagri and Ahmad Al-Essa. The Ittihad right side defender Ahmad Al-Dokhi received his second yellow card against Wehda and as a result he will miss the final match. Ittihad’s defense line is better experienced and organized than Hilal’s, and there is a great chemistry between Ittihad players. The Hilal defense line is good but not as experienced as Ittihad with two players, Tafarees and Fahd Al-Mufarrej, in the heart of Hilal defense line. Tafarees is known for his rough defense tactics and it could result in dangerous fouls and risk of getting the yellow and red cards. Al-Mufarrej keeps focused during a match but he lacks speed and is poor at clearing high balls despite his height. Hilal will have a headache guarding the fast Al-Hassan Kita.
In the midfield their strengths are just about equal and that would add extra excitement to the game because it is difficult to determine who would control the midfield. Hilal have good midfield players and the most dangerous one is Muhammad Al-Shalhoub. He will add extra power especially with the Libyan international Tareq Al-Tayeb playing next to Al-Shalhoub. Moreover, there are two midfielders who play strong defense in Omar Al-Ghamdi and Khaled Aziz. They are equal match to Ittihad midfield with star midfielder Muhammad Nur who has great attacking powers and excellent solo maneuvers. Nur is experienced in executing free kicks outside the penalty box and supporting the striking line. Manaf Abu Shgeer, Ibraheem Suwaeed and Vagnar are also excellent midfielders with attacking sense and they will be a great support to the attacking line.
In the striking line, both teams are equal in power featuring national team striker Yaser Al-Qahtani for Hilal and Al-Hassan Kita for Ittihad side. The Sniper Al-Qahtani is excellent in handling the football inside the penalty box and also dangerous in air balls. He is a difficult striker to guard yet expert in solo attacks and in launching surprising rockets from outside the penalty box. Kita is very dangerous for Ittihad if given the space to run. Kita, however, lacks the finishing touch once he has the ball inside the penalty box sometimes and his shots either get blocked or find their way outside the Hilal net.
The fans also have their take about the final match. According to Saleh Hammadi, sport writer at Asharq Alawsat daily and sport critic at ART sports channel, Hilal are more likely to win due to the stability of the team players and administration. With Brazilian coach Paqueta, he said, they won their four previous local finals and this made them more confident to meet their rivals. On the other hand, Ittihad, who are under the supervision of Belgian coach Demetri, lost their last recent finals and are a bit shaken. Given that winning this game is crucial especially to Mansour Al-Balawi, president of Ittihad club. Hammadi added, the finals, however, spring unexpected changes and no one can expect anything. “This game is an important local final for both team and as a football critic I wish both teams the best, yet if I had to choose I’d say Hilal will win,” he said.
Saud Al-Otaibi, Hilal fan, said that Ittihad will suffer against Hilal and they will suffer their defeat in the final against Hilal. “We will make Ittihad the best second place team in 2007,” he said. He added, “Hilal never lose in front of home crowd. I am more confident that not only we would win the final, but also we will score more goals and make this match a memory for Ittihad that they will never forget. The title should be ours because the numbers say them. We led the Saudi league for half the season and the natural result is that we would win. I feel sorry for Ittihad already and I wish if they had the option to withdraw from the final, but I think that we must give it to them.”
From the Ittihad side, Muhsin Al-Shebani, an Ittihad fan who will travel to Riyadh to attend the final, said that Ittihad will secure the title and that the King’s Cup is in Riyadh temporarily because of the venue of the final match but it is coming back to Jeddah after the match. He said, “Ittihad will secure the match and will erase the bad image of this season after losing the last two titles against Ahli. The spirits of our players are higher than ever. Hilal will not give up the match for Ittihad and Ittihad will not give it up for Hilal. Whoever is going to win will take the title over the nose of the other team.”
He said that Ittihad are looking forward to win and to play in the AFC Champions League next season. He said that the key to winning this title is in the 11 Ittihad jerseys and not in one player. He said that it is essential that the Ittihad coach will play in the right format against Hilal and terminate Al-Qahtani’s movement. “Hamad Al-Muntasheri will place Al-Qahtani in a box and make his match the worst match this year. Lastly, I want to say to Ittihad fans that we never lost a final match at King Fahd International Stadium, so what made them think that they would win this one?”
Inshallah the cup for Al-Hilal :banana: