DUBAI: At the final whistle, the haunted faces of Al Ittihad’s players told the whole story.
A goal in each half by Syrian international Omar Al Somah had just secured a 2-1 win for fierce rivals Al Ahli, and the slumped, crestfallen players, not to mention Brazilian coach Fabio Carille, were coming to terms with the enormity of the defeat and its consequences.
With only six matches of the Saudi Professional League left, the eight-time league champions are now facing the real danger of relegation from the Saudi top flight. Al Ittihad now sit only one place and one point ahead of Al Fateh who currently occupy 14th place, the last of the relegation spots.
Despite several underperforming seasons, relegation for the country’s oldest club would still have been unthinkable at the start of the season, but after their defeat in the Saudi Derby, is now an alarming possibility.
Al Ahli had started the brighter of the two and stopped the home team from playing out from the back. The visitors eventually took the lead after 30 minutes, Al Somah tapping from close range after a shot by Abdulrahman Ghareeb had been saved.
However, Al Ittihad hit back 11 minutes later after some fine work from Fahad Al Muwallad, the ball eventually finding its way to Romarinho, whose flicked pass was volleyed home brilliantly by Abdulellah Al Malki.
Al Ittihad had the majority of the early possession in the second half, with Al Ahli happy to play a patient, containment game and hit them on the break.
And it was from one of these counter-attacks that Al Ahli settled the match on 64 minutes, Al Somah collecting a long pass from captain Hussein Abdulghani on his chest before finishing in typical deadly fashion. A desperate Al Ittihad could not find a way back.
The 43-year-old Abdulghani said he had missed taking part in this derby over the last 13 years, a period in which he enjoyed a nomadic career at Al Rayyan, Neuchatel Xamax, Al NAssr, Very and Ohod.
“Every player looks forward to playing these games,” he said. “Perhaps today the match lacked a little bit of excitement. You know that the fans of Al Ittihad and Al Ahli usually give these matches a unique flavor. But for reasons we all know that was missing today. On a personal note, I’ve missed these derby matches, and I’m glad today we managed to get the three points.”
Al Ahli had struggled for results before the enforced break, but have now recorded two wins since the resumption of the SPL under Serbian coach Vladan Milojević, who replaced the departed Christian Gross before the enforced break.
“Earlier in the season, the change of coaches affected the team in several ways,” Abdulghani added. “Maybe not all teams benefitted from the break in a big way. But in the three weeks of training after the break we got accustomed to the coach’s methods better.”
Al Ahli’s captain also had some comforting words for the beaten opponents.
“I always say that in big or derby matches, the technical difference between the two dreams is not the decisive factor,” he said. “Perhaps the extra pressure on Al Ittihad affected them more. No one expected to see Al Ittihad in this situation, they are such a big club with many domestic and international trophies. I’m sure they’ll be back, and I see that Al Ahli and Al Ittihad complement each other, in terms of competing against each other and improving each other.”
Match winner Al Somah was happy for the three points that kept Al Ahli on the tails of Al Nassr. in second place, but missed the presence of the fans.
“It was strange derby, a sad derby,” he said. “But I’m grateful we could make our fans happy. After the break, we didn’t win any of our friendly matches. The team needed a bit more time, and we still have a few players absent as well. Thankfully, today I was able to take advantage of the two chances I got to score.”
Al Somah’s double brings him closer to Abdulrazak Hamdallah of Al Nassr at the top of the goalscorer’s charts, the Moroccan having last season also succeeded the Syrian as the SPL’s leading marksman.
“Of course there is always ambition to be top scorer,” Al Somah said. “But the team is always a priority. To compete with Abdulrazak Hamdallah and Gomis, you must work hard and push yourself, and there are still six matches left. But the most important thing is for the team to keep on winning.”
A clearly dejected Ittihad captain Karirm El Ahmadi lamented the defensive mistakes which had condemned his team to a second straight defeat since the league’s restart.
“The match was like the one against Abha,” he said. “Getting back to 1-1 restores your confidence in yourself, but then the mistakes came at a bad time, you saw the second goal we conceded today, it is similar to the second goal against Al Abha.”
“I really don’t know why the mistakes keep happening,” El Ahmadi added. “It’s not possible to win matches when these mistakes happen, it’s important to focus. A draw today against Al Ahli would have been positive going into the next match against Al Ettifaq.”
In the earlier matches Al Ettifaq had kicked off round 24 of the disrupted SPL season with a 3-2 win over Al Fayha, second-bottom Damac gave themselves a slim hope of escaping the drop with 2-1 home win over Al Faisaly, and fourth-placed Al Wehda and Al Raed in sixth played out a 0-0 draw.