RIYADH: Relegation-threatened Al-Ittihad belatedly seem to have hit something approaching top form as the disrupted Saudi Professional League season heads toward a tense conclusion.
Having flirted with the relegation zone, and what would be an ignominious drop from the Saudi top flight, the Jeddah club enjoyed a 4-1 victory over fellow basement battlers Al-Fayha on Monday. They can breathe a little more easily now as they sit in 11th place, three points clear of the drop zone with three matches left to play.
Al-Ittihad were unrecognizable from their recent disappointing run of form as they took a two-goal lead within five minutes, thanks to a Romarinho double. The first came only two minutes after kick-off, when the Brazilian playmaker side-footed Saud Abdulhamid’s cross into the net. Three minutes later, Romarinho doubled the lead, taking advantage of a defensive mistake to power a shot past Moslem Al-Freej after a fine pass from Fahad Al-Muwallad.
Al-Ittihad could not maintain their devastating start, however, and as their old insecurities began to surface, the visitors managed to get themselves back in the match midway through the first half.
What in the early stages had looked like it would be a comfortable evening for the home side suddenly turned nervy after 28 minutes when Al-Fayha’s own Brazilian star, Neto, halved the deficit with a fine, close-range volley after the ball had struck the crossbar.
A heroic double save by keeper Marcelo Grohe prevented an equalizer early in the second half, as Al-Fayah coach Jorge Simao threw caution to the wind in an effort to capitalize on Al-Ittihad’s nerves.
On 66 minutes, however, a fine pass by Abdulaziz Al-Bishi left Al-Muwallad one-on-one with Al-Freej, who had no choice but to impede the Saudi international as he skipped past him. Al-Muwallad himself buried the penalty to all but clinch the points for Al-Ittihad.
That was not the end of the scoring, however. With 15 minutes left, the Saudi duo again combined to produce the move of the match, as Al-Bishi slipped the ball through to Al-Muwallad, who delivered a clinical finish into the roof of the net.
The defeat leaves Al-Fayha in 13th place, just two points above the relegation zone. The 4-1 scoreline might flatter Al-Ittihad but with only three matches left, so long as they continue to secure the points coach Fabio Carille and his players will care little for the quality of the performances.
Al-Bishi, who started for Al-Ittihad for the first time since a 2-1 home defeat to Damac on Feb. 10, was outstanding on his return and said he is looking forward to the remaining matches against Al-Fateh (away), Al-Nassr (home) and, on the last day of the season, Al-Adalah (away)
“As you know, our position in the league has not been very good,” Al-Bishi said. “But today we came in with high spirits; we were determined to get the three points and we managed to do that. Now we have to keep winning in the next three matches.”
Grohe, who excelled in goal for Al-Ittihad, put the ultimately comfortable win down to team ethic.
“Three important points — the win was the most important thing today,” he said. “We now have to keep the same focus in the coming matches.
“The difference is that the team has more unity and coherence. I know we can do better but it was a collective effort from every member of the team today.
“Until it’s confirmed mathematically, we have to maintain our focus in the coming period. The next match, against Al-Fateh, is the most important one now, and after that we can start to talk about beating relegation.”
His counterpart, Al-Fayha goalkeeper Al-Freej, was understandably disappointed.
“It was a bad day for us, collectively, but we have to put this match behind us,” he said. “We have a difficult match coming up. We have to forget this. The match against Al-Nassr is now so important — we need the three points.”
Al-Fayha have only collected two points from five games since the league restarted this month after an unscheduled break of almost five months because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the ’keeper believes the results do not reflect their performances.
“We played two matches against Damac and Al-Shabab (and) we were unlucky; we deserved to win both,” Al-Freej said. “Today we were unfortunate but that’s football. We have to work harder and, hopefully, we can rectify our position in the little time that’s left.”
Earlier in the day, Al-Fateh eased their own relegation fears by beating Al-Hazem 4-3 in a dramatic clash. It leaves them in 12th place on 29 points, two points above their hosts, who remain inside the drop zone in 14th position.
The first half ended 1-1, with Sofiane Bendebka’s 18th-minute opener canceled out by a Carlos Strandberg penalty five minutes before the break. But the action at Al-Hazem Stadium was only getting started.
Al-Fateh began the second half in the ascendancy and took a two-goal lead courtesy of Mitchell te Vrede on 49 minutes and Bashkim Kadrii two minutes later.
Just before the hour mark, Osama Al-Khalaf pulled one back to raise the possibility of a remarkable comeback for Al-Hazem, but Ali Al-Hassan appeared to kill their hopes when he restored the two-goal lead on 80 minutes. Abdulrahman Al-Yami made it 4-3 a minute into stoppage time, but by then the clock was against Al-Hazem.
In the day’s other games, Al-Ettifaq thrashed Al-Raed 4-0 in the opening match of round 27, while Al-Shabab and Abha Club played out a 1-1 draw in their middle-of-the-table clash.