DUBAI: After a miserable resumption of the Saudi Professional League (SPL) season for Al-Ittihad, who lost two matches in the space of a week, they finally gave their fans something to smile about on Friday with a 1-0 home win over Al-Ettifaq at King Abdullah Sports City.
However, it was another uncomfortable night for the struggling giants and the result was partially overshadowed by an unseemly scuffle between the teams’ players and coaching staffs.
Al-Ittihad started the day 13th in the league, just one point and one place above Al-Fateh, who occupied the first of the three relegation spots. With six games left to play, the message coming out of the club was that they are being treated like six cup finals — six crucial matches in the battle to avoid the ignominy of dropping out of the top flight or facing a play-off to ensure survival.
By the time the under-pressure players took to the field they knew that Al-Fateh had overtaken them in the race for survival, thanks to a 2-1 win over Abha Club. As a result, Al-Ittihad kicked off their 25th match of the season in the relegation zone.
It was perhaps not surprising then that in a first half littered with errors, a nervous Al-Ittihad 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 opponents’ uncertainty.
Five minutes into the second half, Al-Ittihad got the break they so desperately needed when Al-Ettifaq midfielder Ibrahim Mahnashi clipped Saud Abdulhamid in the penalty area, and the referee correctly awarded a penalty after consulting with the video assistant referee. Saudi international Fahad Al-Muwallad made no mistake from the spot, firmly placing the ball to the right of goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi.
Al-Ittihad failed to capitalize on their advantage but, despite having to endure a few close calls as the referee added six extra minutes, they managed to hold out to secure 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 often seen at the end of grueling cup final than a more routine league game. The victory allowed them to leapfrog both Al-Fateh and Al-Hazem and claim 12th place.
“This was an important win for us; mentally we needed this win,” said match-winner Al-Muwallad. “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 (on Wednesday).”
The Saudi international admitted he is concerned about the number of mistakes his team continue to make, even after taking the lead in Friday’s game.
“If you watch the last two matches you’d see that it was individual mistakes that 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. 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.”
Abdul Aziz Al-Bishi, who was making his first appearance for Al-Ittihad since the SPL resumed after it was suspended for more than four months because of the coronavirus crisis, said the players found it hard to take advantage of the extra space that opened up 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 to climb up the league table.”
Al-Ettifaq defender Saleh Al-Qumaizi was disappointed that his team’s performance did not earn at least a point.
“I think we played a big match,” he said. “We controlled the majority of the play and we gave everything we had. 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 matches, Al-Fayha and Al-Shabab played out a 1-1 draw at Al-Majma’ah Sports City, while two goals in the last 13 minutes helped Al-Raed beat relegation-threatened Al-Hazem 3-1 to remain in fifth place.