JEDDAH: Al-Ittihad warmed up for the FIFA Club World Cup in disappointing fashion with a 3-1 defeat at Damac on Thursday. It was not the best performance from the Roshn Saudi League champions who were without the injured Karim Benzema and Romarinho, though midfielder N’Golo Kante returned to the starting eleven.
The Jeddah club came to Damac on the back of three consecutive wins under new coach Marcelo Gallardo, appointed last month, but now slip further off the pace at the top of the table. They are still in fourth and a full 13 points behind leaders Al-Hilal who have a game in hand.
Damac took an early lead through in-form striker Georges-Kevin Nkouduo for the Cameroonian’s 12th goal of the season. The focus may have been on the injury to Benzema, and Nkouduo showed the benefits of having a fit and in-form striker.
He took possession on the halfway line, sprinted past Luis Felipe, who seemed to pull a hamstring, and then raced free down the left. Taking on Omar Hawsawi, he then fired an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. It was the goal of a top-class striker in excellent form.
The Tigers were struggling to create chances and almost fell further behind just after the half hour. Damac really should have extended their lead. A left-sided free-kick found Farouk Chafai unmarked at the near post. Yet somehow, the Algerian defender headed wide from mere inches out.
The hosts were almost made to pay for their wastefulness immediately. Muhannad Al-Shanqiti broke free on the right side of the area and the substitute, an early replacement for the injured Felipe, shot at the near post only for Mohammed Al-Mahasneh to make the save.
Suddenly it was end-to-end with Domagoj Antolic heading a Nkouduo cross just over the bar from close range and then Ittihad had a claim for a penalty as Marwan Al-Sahafi went down under a challenge from the goalkeeper. After a lengthy stoppage, Hamdallah put the ball on the spot but then the official jogged over to consult the pitchside monitor. The kick was given and the Moroccan did the rest.
It was not enough to send Al-Ittihad in level at the break, as deep into added time Nkoudou got his second. The visiting defense failed to clear a cross and there was the African attacker to pick up the ball on the left side and pick his spot to fire past Marcelo Grohe. With 13 goals this season, he is just two behind the leader Cristiano Ronaldo.
Damac’s lead was extended soon after the restart and in spectacular fashion. Kante’s header fell to Tarek Hamed and the Egyptian’s fierce shot from 30 yards out came back off the woodwork, hit the diving Grohe and ended up in the back of the net. It was recorded as an own goal by the Brazilian.
It was a hammer blow to the hopes of the visitors of getting anything from what was always going to be a tough game against a Damac that had picked up 11 points from their past five league matches. Al-Ittihad poured forward but struggled to break down a team that could now afford to sit back and hit on the counter and midway through the second half, Grohe had to get down well to keep his team in with a chance of getting anything out of the game.
With 18 minutes remaining, there was little prospect of that happening. Hamdallah appealed for a penalty once more but it was never going to be given.
Gallardo now faces a major challenge in picking his players up for next Tuesday’s Club World Cup opener against Auckland City. If the Saudi Arabians can get past the Oceania champions then a massive clash awaits against Egyptian giants Al-Ahly.