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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Al-Ittihad’s FIFA Club World Cup campaign ended on Friday with a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Al-Ahly in their second-round clash in Jeddah.
Thousands of the Egyptian side’s supporters were on their feet for much of the 90 minutes at the King Abdullah Sports City stadium, as their team ultimately proved to be too clinical for the reigning Saudi champions to cope with.
Al-Ittihad fans might point to Karim Benzema’s missed penalty in the first half as a turning point but the empty seats in the home section of the stadium when the final whistle sounded told their own story.
The reward for the African champions is a semi-final showdown with South American champions Fluminense of Brazil on Monday. Al-Ittihad, who defeated Auckland City from New Zealand 3-0 in the first round of the competition on Tuesday, return to league action on Dec. 23 with a home game against Al-Raed.
For the first hour on Friday the match hung in the balance, amid an atmosphere worthy of a meeting between the champions of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Given the passionate level of support from the Al-Ahly fans, at times their players must have felt like they were playing at home.
The first half was played at a fast pace as both teams looked to get forward, even if they struggled to create clear chances. Romarinho had one of the best early on, from inside the area, forcing a good save from Mohammed El-Shenawy.
Al-Ahly were awarded a penalty in the 19th minute when Hassan Kadesh handled a long pass while under pressure from two Egyptian attackers. Despite the wall of yellow behind the goal, Ali Maaloul kept his cool and sent the ball straight down the middle past the diving Abdullah Al-Mayouf.
Seven minutes before the break, Benzema got sight of goal when a fine cross from Muhannad Al-Shanqiti found him on the left side of the area, but his low shot was straight at El-Shenawy.
As Al-Ittihad continued to push for an equalizer they left themselves open to a counterattack and were almost caught out, with Zakaria Al-Hawsawi forced to put the ball behind for a corner.
Before it could be taken, however, the referee was called to the monitor to check a possible earlier handball by Mohammed Abdelmonem and, after a review, he awarded a penalty to Al-Ittihad. Up stepped Benzema in front of a wall of red — and green laser beams shining into his eyes — but El-Shenawy went the right way to make a comfortable diving save.
Near the end of a dramatic first half, Al-Ahly almost scored a second when Kahraba latched onto a poor pass-back from Ahmed Hegazi, but Al-Mayouf was there to make the save.
Al-Ittihad effectively started the second half with two new full-backs. First, coach Marcelo Gallardo replaced Hawsawi with Ahmed Bamsaud at half time. Then, moments after the restart, right-back Al-Shanqiti seemed to pick up a hamstring injury and Madallah Al-Olayan took over.
Within minutes, the two-time Asian champions almost leveled the game. Igor Coronado slipped the ball through to Faisal Al-Ghamdi on the left side of the area, whose low shot squirmed through the legs of El-Shenawy but hit the post and rebounded into the grateful arms of the veteran goalkeeper.
Instead of 1-1, the score became 2-0 just before the hour mark. Hussein El-Shahat, who was making a record 13th appearance at the Club World Cup, had possession of the ball just inside the left corner of the area, made a little room for himself and then curled a delightful shot past the diving Al-Mayouf, sending the Egyptian fans wild.
The game was effectively over just two minutes later when Al-Ahly found huge gaps in the Al-Ittihad defense and Kharaba pulled the ball back from the byline for Emam Ashour to roll the ball home. There was a check for a possible foul in the build-up but the goal stood and that was that.
Al-Ahly took their foot off the gas at that point, their thoughts no doubt turning to their semi-final, but Anthony Modeste’s last-minute red card for an elbow on Hegazi might come back to haunt the team.
Soon after that, Benzema got Al-Ittihad’s consolation as he fired home from close range to claim his sixth Club World Cup goal.
The game will live long in the memories of Al-Ahly fans, as will the celebrations that followed. Al-Ittihad now need to regroup and bounce back on the domestic front, with three games coming up in the space of a week before the end of the year.
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