Al Ittihad singing in the rain as they ease past Auckland City at Club World Cup

Romarinho, Kante and Benzema goals see Saudi Pro League champions through to showdown with Al Ahly

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Even the Jeddah drizzle could not dampen soaring Saudi Arabian spirits.

On Tuesday night, Swedish House Mafia whipped into a frenzy the sell-out crowd before a ball was kicked, veteran Busta Rhymes did his thing at still-impressive speed, and fireworks lit the sky all around King Abdullah Sports City.

Then Al Ittihad contributed the rest.

Romarinho, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema struck in the space of 12 blistering first-half minutes, rendering redundant New Zealand’s Auckland City before the interval, and Ittihad’s raucous fans were signing in the rain.

If the Saudi Pro League champions were determined to deliver on the opening night of the kingdom’s first Fifa Club World Cup, then they did. In black and yellow spades.

From the off, they swarmed all around their opponents, the champions of Oceania. Ittihad could have been 3-0 up by 15 minutes, when Romarinho curled over, Igor Coronado blazed beyond the crossbar with the goal seemingly at his mercy, and Benzema’s left-footed volley didn't match the control with his chest.

In truth, the gap between the two teams always felt apparent. A glance at the team sheets underlined the disparity. With this participation, Auckland may have extended their record Club World Cup appearances to 11, but Ittihad lined up with four tournament winners in their starting XI.

Benzema has five titles alone, all plundered during a glittering 14-year stay at Real Madrid. By the time he departed in June, to join the Big Saudi Football Project at an albeit hefty remuneration, the Frenchman sat as the Spanish club’s all-time second highest goalscorer. He was the reigning Ballon d’Or to boot.

Captaining Ittihad on their second Club World Cup foray, and first in almost two decades, Benzema proved the perfect figurehead.

That Romarinho sent his side on their way was fitting, too. The Brazilian, a Club World Cup winner with Corinthians when still a pup in 2012, arrived at Ittihad long before this summer’s significant spending. He has since established a reputation as the man for the big occasion.

And so it was on Tuesday, when just before the half-hour Romarinho drilled a deflected effort past Conor Tracey in the Auckland goal. Ittihad, and Saudi’s Club World Cup, had lift-off. The stadium trembled in celebration.

Soon, it was two. This time, Kante thundered home a half-volley from the corner edge of the Auckland area and, true to form, looked almost apologetic. He has serious Club World Cup pedigree also, of course, a winner with Chelsea in Abu Dhabi early last year.

Yet no one at this tournament, and not many throughout football, can compare with Benzema’s haul. On 41 minutes, he notched Ittihad’s third and a fifth Club World Cup goal in all to go with his quintet of crowns.

In all probability, there would not have been many better. Kante flicked a one-two with Muhannad Al Shanqeeti through his legs and back into the right-back’s path, he squared to Benzema, and the skipper brushed the ball into the net. Ittihad, and their partisan 50,000-plus support, were having a riot.

It could have been more, as well. In the second half, Benzema’s brilliant solo run was denied an apt ending by Tracey; the Auckland No 1 then saved superbly from Coronado, and sprawled across his line to prevent Zakaria Hawsawi’s deflected centre from spinning inside the post.

But Ittihad were already home and hosed. Mission 1 accomplished, on a damp but dreamy night in Jeddah, they bounce into Friday’s second-round clash with Egypt's Al Ahly full of the thrill of what might come.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 9:58 AM