Al Ahly paint Jeddah red with Club World Cup win over hosts Al Ittihad

Egyptian champions prevail 3-1 at King Abdullah Sports City to set up semi-final against Fluminense

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The prodigious banner before the match declared “The World Is Yellow”, but in the end it was a vibrant red.

Al Ahly, out of form and out of sorts coming into their Fifa Club World Cup encounter with Arab rivals Al Ittihad, played the party poopers on a wild Friday night in Jeddah.

The hosts, carrying the hopes of a nation with them, were stunned and then steamrolled at a creaking King Abdullah Sports City. One goal down at half-time, they were down and out courtesy of three manic second-half minutes, when Ahly went two up and then three. Karim Benzema pulled one back in injury-time, but by then the damage was done.

Oh how it could’ve been all so different had the Ittihad captain, the Jeddah side's superstar player, not spurned his spot-kick to level as the first half came to a close.

The Saudi champions, beaten and no doubt bruised by this, slip from view at the second hurdle. Days after Auckland, came the anguish against Ahly. In contrast, the Egyptians, champions of Africa, plough onto the semi-finals, when they meet South American counterparts Fluminense on Monday.

Regrettably for Ittihad, they will wish it would be them instead. The night began with so much promise, a carnival atmosphere playing out before the two teams had even taken to the pitch. When they did, flares illuminated the Ahly side of the stadium, smoke wafted on the wind, and the Ittihad support responded in kind.

A giant banner, depicting those three words and the Club World Cup trophy between, covered their Ultras behind one goal.

From there, deafening boos and whistles greeted every early Ahly touch or passage of play, or roars replied to each reclaim of possession. Two of Arab world’s best-followed clubs, on the world stage, it was a powder keg of passion. It scrambled the brain, trembled the bones.

It was Ahly, though, who stood tallest, chests out, chasing an upset and a place in the last four.

They grabbed the lead on 21 minutes, not long after goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy had repelled Romarinho from point-blank range, and soon following Abdullah Al Mayouf’s block from Ahly’s Mohamed Hany.

Al Mayouf, a runner-up to Benzema and Real Madrid in the 2022 Club World Cup earlier this year, was the only change to Tuesday’s victory in the tournament launch against Auckland City, coming in for Marcelo Grohe.

On Friday, there was little the substitute could do about the opener. El Shahat and Hassan Kadesh contested a searching pass over the top, the ball skidded off the Ittihad defender’s raised arm and, after the referee went to VAR, he pointed to the spot.

Al Maaloul, stood facing not only Al Mayouf in the Ittihad goal but the most boisterous section of the Ittihad support behind their No 1, somehow kept his nerve to thrash home the penalty.

Camped at the opposite end of the stadium, Ahly’s support exploded in celebration. They were soon bouncing in unison, an ocean of enraptured scarlet from across the Red Sea.

Ittihad, targeting a home run to the final, were clearly rattled, their opponents rampant on the break.

But, after Benzema had fired straight at El Shenawy, they were granted a golden opportunity to level. Up for a set-piece, defender Ahmed Hegazy leapt alongside Mohamed Abdelmonem to challenge N’Golo Kante’s deep cross and, as the Ahly man was lightly nudged, the ball caught his flailing arm.

VAR again intervened; again, the official signaled for a penalty. However, this time it would not supply the same outcome.

Benzema, a five-time Club World Cup winner, blinked through the lasers shone down from the Ahly supporters, and blundered from 12 yards. To El Shenawy's credit, he had guessed correctly, diving to his right to palm away the effort.

Yet Benzema, who notched on Tuesday to create history by scoring in four separate Club World Cups, has almost certainly struck better spot-kicks.

Not long into the second half, Ittihad were inches from striking level. Igor Coronado slalomed past a series of opponents, played in Faisal Al Ghamdi, but the Saudi's shot squirmed off El Shenawy and onto the base of the post.

In a flash, Ahly were two up. El Shahat collected the ball just inside the Ittihad area, shifted inside and curled a sublime shot beyond Al Mayouf. If Ittihad were dazed, they were soon after defeated.

Minutes later, Ahly broke through and the ball found Emam Ashour, who placed cutely past Al Mayouf. Cue bedlam behind the Ittihad goal; despair among the Ittihad fans at the other end. The Saudi support turned for the exit.

Ahly did have Anthony Modeste given a straight red in the final minute, and Benzema pulled one back for Ittihad. But it was too little, too late.

If not quite the world, for a night at least, Jeddah was red.

Updated: December 16, 2023, 6:08 AM