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.