Without Benzema, Ittihad stroll to win on Asian return

Haroune Camara celebrates after scoring. (Al-Ittihad)
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Updated 19 September 2023

Without Benzema, Ittihad stroll to win on Asian return

Al-Ittihad returned to the Asian Champions League for the first time since 2019 in style with a 3-0 win over AGMK of Uzbekistan on Monday to go top of Group C. A first-half blitz from the Jeddah giants in front of an appreciative home crowd ensured that the result was never really in doubt.

Heading into this clash against the team that finished fourth in the Uzbek Super League last season and are sitting a place lower down the rankings this time, most of the headlines had been focused on the absence of star striker Karim Benzema. The Frenchman, who inspired Real Madrid to the 2021-22 European title, sat out this clash due to injury but this was a game that served to show that coach Nuno Santo has plenty of attacking options at his disposal. 

With three goals coming in the first half, the game was virtually over as a contest by the break. AGMK, making their third appearance in the continental tournament and aiming to get to the knockout stage for the first time ever, started brightly but were behind after just 11 minutes. 

Muhannad Al-Shantiqi was freed down the right and while his low shot was well-saved by the feet of Botirali Ergashev, Haroune Camara was on hand to fire home the rebound. It was an impressive finish from a player who had managed just 28 minutes on the pitch in the league season so far.

Soon after, it was two after another rebound. Camara juggled the ball on the left side of the area and while his shot was blocked, it fell to Romarinho who side-footed home from near the penalty spot.

None of the fans present could quite believe how it was not 3-0 after 21 minutes. Abderrazak Hamdallah and Al-Shanqiti broke through the Uzbek defence and were all alone approaching the area. The Moroccan unselfishly laid the ball left to his team-mate but somehow Ergashev got across to save at the midfielder’s feet.

Not to worry. Just before the break, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty, judging that Dilshodbek Akhmadaliev had brought down Hamdallah with a wild kick inside the area. Romarinho, standing by the spot and not in need of a run-up, simply drove the ball into the bottom corner to give the visitors a mountain to climb. 

Even with Hamdallah going off injured, there was never a hint that the result was going to change after the break and it was not a surprise that Al-Ittihad, who were in league action last Thursday and are again this Thursday, were happy to control possession and see out the game. The second half was a largely forgettable affair with Romarinho not quite able to get his hat-trick.

The next game in Asia, the ten group winners and six best second-placed teams progress to the knockout stage, could be crucial. On October 2, Al-Ittihad travel to Iran to face Sepahan who drew 2-2 at the Iraqi home of Al Quwa Al-Jawiya to move second behind the Saudi Arabian leaders.

For now though, Al-Ittihad return to domestic action against Al-Fateh on Thursday, just a point behind the leaders Al-Hilal, in the knowledge that the campaign to win a first Asian championship since 2005 has started in the smoothest of fashions.

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Updated 28 February 2024

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

  • The Moroccan international was expected to exit the reigning SPL champions but has ended up being their most consistent forward this season

Al-Ittihad’s defense of the Saudi Pro League title has largely been one to forget.

Despite some early season promise that had them top for the first month, the wheels quickly fell off culminating in a disappointing showing in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and speculation that star signing Karim Benzema wanted out.

As recently as round seven they were still top of the table, but just 14 matches later they are now fifth and a whopping 22 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. Any notion of going back-to-back has long since disappeared.

Their mission now is to simply try to close the gap on third-placed Al-Ahli, their crosstown Jeddah rivals, in the hope of securing what is still an unlikely spot in next season’s reformed AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Whereas last season they had one of the best defenses in the league — and one of the best on record in Saudi Pro League history — this season they have the equal worst of the top six.

Nuno Espirito Santo, meanwhile, who spearheaded that drought-breaking title triumph, has been moved on for hotshot Argentine manager Marcelo Gallardo.

But as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse were it not for the goals of Moroccan international Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 15 from 17 games this season.

The veteran striker has made a name for himself in the Kingdom since joining Al-Nassr after an equally fruitful stint in Qatar with El-Jaish and Al-Rayyan.

Scoring a league record 34 goals in his debut season with Al-Nassr, and 29 in his second season, he transferred to Al-Ittihad during the 2021-2022 season and has registered double digits in each of his five SPL seasons before the current campaign, making him one of the SPL’s all-time leading scorers.

It has also won him the hearts of Ittihad’s large and fervently faithful fanbase.

But after Al-Ittihad’s stunning capture of Benzema, regarded as one of the best strikers of the modern era, questions were naturally asked as to what the future held for the 33-year-old Hamdallah.

It seems inconceivable that the title-winning team would move on their leading striker who had just won the league’s golden boot, but that is what almost eventuated.

It is understood that the plan inside the walls of Al-Ittihad was to move the striker on — after all, they had Benzema now — only relenting after growing fan pressure against the move, giving the Moroccan a reprieve.

While running your recruitment based on the wishes of the fans is perhaps not the smartest strategy, it could be argued it was their best management decision of the summer.

Still only 33 and with plenty of years ahead of him, Hamdallah is what every team craves — a natural and reliable goalscorer. And as Al-Ittihad’s title defense has faltered, it is largely the goals from Hamdallah that is keeping their campaign alive.

His brace in their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Al-Wehda on the weekend was further proof of his importance to Gallardo’s side.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that he could have been moved on. He will know how close he was and you get the sense he is playing with that chip on his shoulder, that every time he steps foot on the pitch, he has a point to prove.

And boy is he proving it.

His form this season also serves as a timely reminder that the SPL did not begin with the influx of headline signings in the most recent off-season.

Before the arrival of Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and even before Cristiano Ronaldo, the SPL still attracted elite talent.

While Hamdallah may not possess the profile of those recent arrivals, his quality cannot be questioned. The same can be said for Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr teammate, Anderson Talisca.

After Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh there was speculation that the Brazilian would be moved on; deemed surplus to requirements at a club that had to shed a foreign player to make way for Ronaldo.

Talisca remained and this season he and Ronaldo have combined for 35 of Al-Nassr’s 60 goals.

Write these guys off at your peril.

As Al-Ittihad prepare for a season-defining fortnight, which will feature three Saudi Clasico’s against the high-flying Al-Hilal — one in the league and home-and-away ties in the AFC Champions League — they will do so grateful to have the Moroccan leading the line.

Having scored in eight consecutive league matches dating back to November, his form is imperious. His five goals in three games since the league resumed from its winter break make him the league’s most in-form striker.

While their title defense may be over, that does not mean they cannot impact where the silverware goes this season. Not to mention there is still silverware of their own to play for in the form of the AFC Champions League, where he has registered a further four goals.

Staring down this Al-Hilal side is a daunting prospect — their winning streak currently stands at 24 across all competitions (26 if you include friendly wins over Inter Miami and Al-Nassr). Their undefeated streak is now at 34 games.

And as good as his scoring record is, Hamdallah has only scored once against Al-Hilal since joining Al-Ittihad two years ago; that coming in their 4-3 loss earlier this season. It is a wrong he will be determined to right over the next fortnight.

In a season to forget for Al-Ittihad, Hamdallah could still deliver moments to remember and that starts with this week’s trip to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

Updated 26 February 2024

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

  • Victory restored Riyadh club’s seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at top of Roshn Saudi League

RIYADH: Al-Hilal won 2-0 at Al-Ettifaq on Monday to restore their seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at the top of the Roshn Saudi League.

It was also the club’s 24th successive victory in all competitions and showed the eighth-placed home team what was required to challenge at the summit of the table.

Al-Ettifaq had the busiest winter transfer window of any team in the top tier and collected a welcome win last week at Al-Khaleej. Al-Hilal are, however, a very different proposition and while the team from Dammam fought hard, the 18-time champions were just too strong.

Al-Hilal should have taken the lead in the 16th minute, but Kalidou Koulibaly’s low shot on the turn inside the area was well-saved by Paulo Victor. Soon after, Renan Lodi made a marauding run forward, though his fierce shot from outside the area just cleared the bar.

With around eight minutes of the half remaining, however, Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard must have been quietly satisfied. The champions may have made most of the running, but it was goalless, and the hosts had given themselves a platform to build on in the second half.

But then Al-Hilal struck twice before the break. The first goal was from a simple though well-executed corner from the right. It came from the boot of Ruben Neves and while it seemed as if the green shirts massing around the near post would be able to deal with it, in ran Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to send a bullet header into the back of the net for his ninth league goal of the season.

It was only one goal and still possible for the English tactician to get his men back in the dressing room to regroup. But Salem Al-Dawsari had other ideas.

Once again, Al-Ettifaq will be asking questions of themselves defensively, especially Mohammed Abdulrahman. The right-back first gave the ball away and was then beaten too easily by the Asian player of the year who cut in from the left, advanced toward the near post, and slipped the ball past Victor for his 10th league goal of the season.

The half ended on a high of sorts with Gini Wijnaldum testing Yassine Bounou with a shot from outside the area.

Al-Ettifaq tried their utmost after the break but still struggled to create clear chances.

The game was almost settled just after the hour as Milinkovic-Savic whipped in a wicked shot from 20 meters out which beat Victor but came back off the inside of the post and, despite the best efforts of Malcom, eventually out to safety.

With eight minutes remaining, Al-Ettifaq came close to making it a very interesting final stage. Karl Toko-Ekambi advanced toward the Al-Hilal box and, flanked by blue shirts, sent a low shot from the right side that rolled just past the post.

With it went the home team’s chances of getting anything from the game and, in fact, the Blues looked likelier to get a third with Michael coming close in the final seconds.

In the end, Al-Hilal had to settle for 2-0 while Al-Ettifaq, who stay in eighth, and coach Gerrard know that there should be easier tasks ahead.

Right now, it would seem no team can stop Al-Hilal.

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

Updated 26 February 2024

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

  • Critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation
  • Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo has come under heavy criticism after seemingly making an offensive gesture following Al-Nassr’s 3-2 victory over Al-Shabab in a Saudi Pro League match on Sunday.
The Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr.
After the final whistle, videos posted on social media showed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.
In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.
While the incident was not captured by television cameras, critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation.
Ronaldo, who completed a lucrative move to the Riyadh-based club in December 2022, has a league-leading 22 goals this season. Al-Nassr trail fellow big-spending rivals Al-Hilal by four points, having played a game more.
Al-Nassr is also in contention for the Asian Champions League — a tournament it has never won — and will play Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals next month.

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Updated 26 February 2024

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

RIYADH: It was the Ronaldo and Talisca show on Sunday as Al-Nassr moved to within four points of Al-Hilal at the top of the Roshn Saudi League with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab.

Three times Al-Nassr took the lead, once through Cristiano Ronaldo and twice through Anderson Talisca. Twice Al-Shabab — who will feel they did enough to earn at least a point — equalized, but they were unable to do so for a third time.

Al-Nassr started brightly with Al-Shabab goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Absi, in for the injured Kim Seung-gyu, having to push a Marcelo Brozovic shot over the bar in the sixth minute.

Al-Shabab’s new star signing Ivan Rakitic tried his luck from outside the area after 10 minutes, but Waleed Abdullah was equal to the attempt from the former Barcelona star.

Sadio Mane then netted before being adjudged to have been offside when making his run.

Abdullah then had to make a more difficult save, getting down quickly to stop a Yannick Carrasco effort that was creeping in at the near post.

Al-Nassr were then awarded a penalty. A corner resulted in Mane shooting from the edge of the area and it struck the hand of Romain Saiss. Up stepped Ronaldo and he made no mistake. The visiting fans paid tribute to their hero and the chant of “Cristiano Ronaldo” could be heard ringing around for some time.

Al-Shabab equalized with a penalty of their own after Carlos Junior was brought down in the area. Just as Ronaldo did, Carrasco converted and the two teams went in at the break on equal terms.

Al-Nassr were back in front within two minutes of the restart. Otavio found Talisca on the edge of the area and, despite the close attention of defenders, the Brazilian made room for himself to find the bottom corner, though Al-Absi did manage to get a hand on it.

His opposite number Abdullah then had to get down to save an awkward shot from Nader Al-Sharari.

Just after the hour Brozovic should have given the visitors a welcome cushion. Freed by Otavio, the Croatian bore down on goal from a central position but, on the edge of the area, he shot tamely into the arms of Al-Absi with Talisca to his right screaming for the ball.

Al-Shabab then equalized for the second time. The goal had been coming and was deserved as Habib Diallo found space on the right of the area and sent over a perfect pass to the opposite post where Carlos Junior was on hand to score from close range.

Al-Shabab were on top and looked dangerous, but with three minutes remaining, Talisca won it for the visitors. A beautiful through ball from Abdullah Al-Khaibari released the Brazilian who slotted home from just inside the area to maintain Al-Nassr’s title challenge.

There was still time for Shabab’s Abdullah Radif to pick up two yellow cards and receive his marching orders to complete a frustrating afternoon for the hosts.

Earlier in the day, Al-Feiha defeated relegation strugglers Abha 3-2 to move above Al-Shabab into 10th. 

Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat

Updated 24 February 2024

Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat

  • Kingdom were playing for third place in Group A
  • Tournament is the first major 11-a-side competition for females to be held in the KSA

JEDDAH: A 2-0 defeat against Guam on Friday saw the women’s national team of Saudi Arabia end their participation in the 2024 West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship.
Saudi Arabia and Guam were playing for third place in Group A with qualification out of reach for both teams following previous results against Jordan and Lebanon.
The 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship is the first major 11-a-side tournament for females to be hosted in Saudi Arabia.
Guam scored a brace in the clash, although the Saudi women played well, going close on numerous occasions.
The Saudi side lost their opener 3-1 against Jordan and were defeated 3-2 by Lebanon prior to Friday’s match.
Progress has been made under new head coach Lluis Cortes and the team gave a solid account of themselves against strong opposition.
The players will return to their club teams where they will resume playing in the second season of the Women’s Premier League until April.
The WAFF Women’s Championship is just the latest international football tournament to take place in Jeddah, which hosted the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and the 2022 WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship.