Going into their Saudi Pro League match against Al Hilal on Monday, Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq were flying high off the back of two wins including a famous 2-1 victory over Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in their season opener.
The side that had last won the league title in 1987 were close to the top of the table, after securing seven points from three games just like their unbeaten opponents.
Then came the bad news for the former Rangers boss. Al Ettifaq had to make do without their star striker Moussa Dembele and reliable centre-back Marcel Tisserand, who both failed to recover from injuries sustained in the previous match. Things went from bad to worse for the side from Dammam inside ten minutes of their game against Al Hilal as creative winger Vitinho had to be carried off with a hamstring injury.
The Portuguese winger had been a vital cog in Al Ettifaq’s attacking machine under Gerrard in the opening games. It was his smartly executed free-kick under the wall that secured a point in the derby against Al Khaleej a few days earlier, and he was involved in both goals in the 2-0 win over Al Hazem, setting up Robin Quaison’s opener before scoring the second himself with a drilled effort from the edge of the area.
The impact of Vitinho’s absence was instantly felt as Al Ettifaq struggled to create chances and failed to score for 90 minutes for the first time this season and fell to their first defeat with Al Hilal striking twice through Malcom and Salem Al Dawsari.
Since his arrival in Dammam, Gerrard has imposed a strict physical regime on the squad, with footage of his players collapsing on the pitch during pre-season training going viral online. And while his team did look physically superior to their opponents in the early weeks of the league, the injury crisis and the defeat that followed will raise some questions over how Gerrard’s ways could be negatively impacting on his team – but seven points from four matches remains a promising start for the Liverpool legend in Saudi Arabia.
On the opposite coast, a key player’s injury was not enough to stop Al Ittihad from continuing their perfect start to the season. The travelling supporters in Makkah watched with concern as club captain Karim Benzema hobbled off eight minutes before half-time due to a hamstring injury. The reigning Ballon d’Or holder had opened his account with his new club in the 4-0 win over Al Riyadh three days earlier, but now faces a spell on the sidelines.
Benzema’s premature exit presented an opportunity for Jota; the Portuguese winger who had arrived from Celtic to much fanfare as one of the most exciting players in the Scottish Premiership but found himself on the fringes of the first team as coach Nuno Espirito Santo continued to employ a narrow formation with no natural wingers.
As a result, the 24-year-old found himself at the heart of much speculation about his future just weeks after arriving in Jeddah, with a loan move to another SPL side or a return to Glasgow at a discounted price being touted.
Instead, Benzema’s injury means an opportunity for the winger who replaced the number nine, prompting a change in formation at half-time from his boss. Midway through the second half, Jota showed his qualities as he ran behind the defence on the left side, latching on the end of an Igor Coronado pass and dribbling his way into the box before beating Al Wehda goalkeeper at his near post.
An all-round excellent display from the Portuguese saw Al Ittihad march to a 3-0 win, leaving them clear at the top of the table with four wins from four, 12 goals scored, and none conceded. But most importantly for Jota, it showed that he still has a future in Jeddah and if his compatriot Nuno figures out a way to utilise his talents, he could unlock the potential of one of the most talented players in the league.