Kante sees red as Al-Hilal take a step toward Asian Champions League semi-finals

Salem Al-Dawsari was the star of the show and N’Golo Kante was sent off as Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 2-0 in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday, moving them a step closer to a fifth continental title.

Two goals in the final few minutes of the first half did all the damage in this “Saudi Classico” at the Kingdom Arena. Aleksandar Mitrovic opened the scoring from the penalty spot and two minutes later, Al-Dawsari added a second.

The hugely difficult task of finding a way back into the game became almost impossible for the visitors from Jeddah when Kante was sent off midway through the second half for a dangerous tackle on former Chelsea colleague Kalidou Koulibaly. The Tigers did end strongly, however, to perhaps give themselves a little hope for the second leg next week.

“It was a difficult game today, Ittihad are a good team,” said Koulibaly. “We got two goals in the first half and then we tried to control the game but it was difficult with their counterattack. But to win 2-0 at home is a good result and we will wait until the second game.”

This Champions League clash came just four days after Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 at home to go nine points clear of closest rivals Al-Nassr at the top of the Roshn Saudi League. It was their 25th straight win in all competitions and Tuesday’s result, similarly comfortable, extended the run to an incredible 26 games.

Al-Dawsari was a constant threat. After just seven minutes, the Asian Player of the Year lifted the ball over Saad Al-Mosa on the edge of the area but shot just wide.

Al-Ittihad had their chances, too. Eight minutes later, for example, the lively Abderrazak Hamdallah cut in from the left and skipped past two defenders, but his low shot from a tight angle was saved by Mohammed Al-Owais, all of whom’s appearances this season have been in the continental competition. From the resultant corner, Ahmed Hegazi blasted the ball over the bar.

Eight minutes before the break, Mitrovic went down in the area under a challenge from Madallah Al-Olayan. The penalty was given and the Serbian strolled up to send the goalkeeper the wrong way.

Minutes later, the lead was extended. Malcom broke free down the right and squared the ball across to the penalty spot, where Al-Dawsari was waiting to sweep it home and then perform the celebratory somersault Al-Hilal fans know so well.

The visitors were shell-shocked and knew that conceding a third goal could doom their dreams of a third Asian Champions League triumph, and their first since 2005. They tried to get back into the game but struggled to do so, and things became worse shortly after the hour mark when Kante received his marching orders for his challenge on Koulibaly while stretching for the ball.

From that point on, it seemed like a case of damage limitation for Al-Ittihad. Indeed, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who has been in fine form of late, had a chance to make it three when he tried his luck with a bouncing half-volley from outside the box, to no avail.

Overall however, when Al-Hilal had the chance to put the tie beyond the reach of their Jeddah rivals they failed to make the most of their one-man advantage.

Indeed, the game could have ended very differently indeed. With seven minutes remaining, the visitors had perhaps their best chance of the match. Marwan Al-Sahafi sent over over a cross from the right that found Hegazi unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, but the Egyptian defender could not quite find the power or direction he needed and his header was comfortably saved by Al-Owais.

The Tigers went even closer just before the end of regulation time. First Al-Sahafi fed Hamdallah in the area and Moroccan marksman’s first touch took him past Koulibaly. His second touch was a shot that seemed destined for the bottom corner of the net, only for Al-Owais to get down quickly and make a fine save.

These late scares were perhaps a warning for the hosts that the tie is not over yet. But given Al-Hilal’s incredible form, it is hard to imagine that they might slip up and fail to reach the final four, where they would face either Al-Ain of the UAE or Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr, who lost the first leg of their tie 1-0, away from home, on Monday.

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