After a miserable restart to the Saudi Professional League (SPL) which saw them lose two matches in a week, Al Ittihad finally managed to give their fans reason to smile with a 1-0 win over Al-Ettifaq at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.
But it was another uncomfortable night for the struggling giants, and the result would be partially overshadowed by an unseemly scuffle between the two groups of players and coaching staff.
Al-Ittihad started the day in 13th place, just one point and one position above Al-Fateh in the last of the relegation places. The messages coming out of the club were of six cup finals; six matches to escape the ignominy of dropping out of the top flight, or a potential play-off to ensure survival.
By the time Al-Ittihad’s under-pressure players took to the field against Al-Ettifaq, they would have known that — thanks to a 2-1 win over Abha Club earlier — Al-Fateh had indeed overtaken them in the race for survival. Al-Ittihad would be kicking off their 25th match of the season in the relegation zone.
In a first half strewn with errors, a nervous Al-Ittihad not surprisingly lacked cohesion and confidence, and coach Fabio Carille’s decision to start Brazilian playmaker Romarinho nominally on the left side of midfield seemed to unbalance the team. Still, despite some promising attacks, especially down the wings, Al-Ettifaq were unable to take advantage of their opponent’s uncertainty.
Five minutes into the second half Al-Ittihad got the break they so desperately needed when Ettifaq midfielder Ibrahim Mahnashi clipped Saud Abdulhamid in the penalty area, and after consulting VAR, the referee correctly awarded a penalty. Saudi International player Fahad Al-Muwallad made no mistake from the spot, firmly placing the ball to the right of Raïs M’Bolhi.
Al-Ittihad failed to capitalize on the advantage and, despite having to endure a few close calls as six extra minutes were added, held out for a narrow 1-0 win and three priceless points.
At the final whistle, Al-Ittihad’s exhausted players sank to their knees, a reaction more at place at the end of cup final than a traditionally routine win that saw them leapfrog Al-Fateh and Al-Hazem into 12th place.
“This was an important win for us, mentally we needed this win,” match-winner Al-Muwallad said. “But I have to say that despite the win we didn’t perform to our best. We fell short in certain parts, but thankfully we got the most important thing which is the three points. I hope this will help our morale ahead of the match against Al-Faisaly.”
Al-Muwallad remains concerned at the number of mistakes Al-Ittihad continued to make after taking the lead.
“If you watched the last two matches you’d see that it was individual mistakes which led to two defeats,” he said. “Today we managed to fix some of those problems. But not all of them, we still made mistakes and as I said we didn’t play to the level that Al-Ittihad fans expect from us, despite the presence of a very good group of players. This win should make us more relaxed in the coming games.”
“After the goal we retreated somewhat, we tried to finish the game with our counterattacks but couldn’t,” Al-Muwallad added. “Thankfully we still got the win. We will take it one match at a time, now we should forget this match and start thinking about the match against Al-Faisaly.”
Abdulaziz Al-Bishi, playing his first match for Al-Ittihad since the SPL’s restart revealed that it was hard to take advantage of the extra space that started to appear after Al Muwallad’s goal.
“The weather didn’t help, and coming back from the break maybe some of the players found it hard out there,” he said. “But this should help us in the coming matches, and we can add more points add climb up the league table.”
Al-Ettifaq defender Saleh al Qumaizi was disappointed his team’s performance did not result in at least a point.
“I think we played a big match, we controlled the majority of the play, and we gave everything we had,” he said. “We made some mistakes, and they scored from one of them. We have many key players on the left, right and down the middle. I think today we concentrated mostly on the left and a little on the right channels, but it wasn’t to be.”
In the day’s other early matches, Al-Fayha and Al-Shabab played out a 1-1 draw at Al Majmaa Sports City, while two goals in the last 13 minutes helped Al Raed beat relegation-threatened Al Hazem 3-1 to stay in fifth place.