Saudi Pro League: Benzema injured as Al Ittihad extend perfect start to season

New Saudi Arabia manager Roberto Mancini attends Al Hilal's 2-0 win over Steven Gerrard's Al Ettifaq

Karim Benzema appears to wince in pain shortly before being substituted during Al Ittihad's Saudi Pro League match against Al Wehda. AFP
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Al Ittihad extended their perfect start to the Saudi Pro League season by easing past Al Wehda 3-0 on Monday night, but the victory was soured somewhat by an injury to star striker Karim Benzema.

Benzema, the reigning Ballon d'or holder, was forced to leave the pitch towards the end of the first half and Ittihad have confirmed that the 35-year-old Frenchman has sustained a muscle injury. Benzema appeared to land awkwardly when challenging for the ball and fell to the turf clutching his leg.

The injury means Benzema is a doubt for Friday's Saudi clasico between Ittihad and Al Hilal.

"The team captain and star player, Karim Benzema, was forced to leave the field during the first half of the match against Al Wehda Club ... because of a muscle injury," Ittihad posted on social media.

"He will be undergoing medical tests in the upcoming hours to precisely diagnose the injury and determine the required course of treatment."

Benzema was replaced by fellow summer signing Jota and the Portuguese winger made his mark on the match by scoring Ittihad's second goal in the 67th minute, finishing from a tight angle after latching on to classy pass from playmaker Igor Coronado.

Four minutes earlier, Brazilian forward Romarinho had broken the deadlock with a superb long-range strike.

Romarinho then had a hand in Ittihad's third goal when he played the ball into Coronado's path in the 73rd minute, but his fellow Brazilian still had plenty of work to do. Fortunately for Coronado, the Wehda defence did not put him under pressure and he was able to carry the ball into the penalty area unchallenged before firing into the bottom corner.

The victory at King Abdul Aziz Stadium was Ittihad's fourth from as many games and the Jeddah giants are yet to concede a goal this season, their stingy defensive record a reflection of a high-quality midfield base comprising N'Golo Kante and Fabinho.

Ittihad could be further strengthened before the end of the transfer window, with the club still heavily linked with a move for Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah.

"We are very disappointed with the result, with the outcome of the game," Ettifaq manager Gerrard said. "We have no complaints; we deserved to be beaten on our performance. But I take full accountability and responsibility.

"Second half we asked the team to raise the technical level, to be brave, to play without fear. There was a marked improvement in the 45 minutes - we had one or two moments where if we scored it could have been interesting.

"But all in all, our performance wasn’t strong enough tonight to get a result against a really strong team."

Al Hilal ensured they did not lose further ground on Ittihad by beating Al Ettifaq 2-0 to inflict the first defeat of Steven Gerrard's Saudi Pro League career.

Hilal may still be waiting on record signing Neymar to make his debut, but the 18-time league champions still possess more than enough quality in the Brazilian forward's absence following a remarkable summer transfer window.

Two of those new signings combined to open the scoring when, in the 24th minute, Brazilian forward Malcom ran on to Aleksandar Mitrovic's headed knock-down and struck a first-time finish into the bottom corner. It was Malcom's fourth goal of the season following his opening-day hat-trick against Abha.

Saudi Arabia international Salem Al Dawsari, who caught global attention with his spectacular winning goal against Argentina at the 2022 World Cup, scored Hilal's second shortly before half time with a superb volley from the edge of the area.

With new Saudi Arabia manager Roberto Mancini watching on inside the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium, it was the ideal time for Al Dawsari to score his first home goal of the season.

Also in action on Monday night, Abha defeated Al Feiha 2-1 and and Al Raed beat Al Riyadh 3-0.

Al Ahli will aim to move level on points with Ittihad on Tuesday night when Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Co take on Al Ta'ee, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Nassr host Al Shabab.

Updated: August 29, 2023, 8:22 AM