Despite a summer that saw them sign N’Golo Kante, Fabinho, Jota, Luiz Felipe and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, Al-Ittihad struggled for consistency in the opening weeks of the season, prompting the dismissal of Nuno Espirito Santo on November 8. Marcelo Gallardo took charge on November 18, ending a year-long sabbatical and opening his account with a 1-1 draw at Al-Ettifaq, before edging Uzbek side AGMK 2-1 in the AFC Champions League.
Benzema doubled their lead within a half-hour as the Tigers thrashed Al-Khaleej 4-2, whilst Jota’s 69th-minute winner saw Al-Ittihad prevail 2-1 against Iranian club Sepahan in the Champions League. A brace from ex Tottenham man Georges-Kévin N’Koudou would see Damac win 3-1, ending the Saudi club’s one-month unbeaten run, but they would bounce back in impressive fashion, beating Auckland City 3-0 in the Club World Cup via goals from Romarinho, Kante and Benzema.
Whilst Gallardo typically plays with three offensive players, he has often been relying on formations with two strikers up front for long (4-4-2, 4-3-1-2, 3-5-2, 3-1-4-2 etc…), and this is exactly what Al-Ittihad are looking for to find the right formula between their two top strikers Benzema and Abderrazak Hamdallah. Hamdallah has massively contributed to get Al-Ittihad back to the league title scene, after imposing himself as the very top goalscorer, last season, outracing stars like Anderson Talisca and Cristiano Ronaldo, and it seems like he will stay put at the club, having been previously linked with a January move to Al-Shabab.
Hamdallah and Benzema struggled for chemistry despite the good partnership between them in the group stage of the Arab Club Champions Cup in the pre-season, and add to that offensive players like Romarinho and Igor Coronado, who are not really pure wingers, Nuno Espirito Santo struggled to make these four offensive talents fit, all of whom play their best football centrally and struggle out wide.
Therefore, voices have been raised requesting the departure of Hamdallah, but this would be far too risky for The Tigers. Disregarding the emotional part of the story and what he has achieved with them, dropping one of the best goalscorers in the history of Asian football, who is still just 32, is ridiculous. The Moroccan has plenty to offer and although Benzema has certainly stolen the spotlight from him, there’s reason to believe these two can coexist.
Al-Nassr have already regreted doing so in the past by letting Hamdallah join their SPL rivals, only for him to knock them out of the Super Cup, and most importantly, snatched a precious league title from them last season. Gallardo will be forced to solve this dilemma and find the right balance for Al-Ittihad, who sit fifth in the league table, and who’ll be facing off against Egyptian giants Al Ahly on Friday in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup.
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