RIYADH: It is often said in football that it is best to strengthen when you are already strong.
Al-Hilal would love to do nothing more, but just a month after winning their 18th Saudi Professional League title, the champions are stuck in transfer limbo and have yet to make any of the signings that coach Ramon Diaz wants. To make matters worse, or at least more frustrating, rivals have been getting busy.
Al-Hilal are waiting to hear if their appeal against what is in effect a double transfer window ban is successful. This punishment was handed down by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in May in regard to the Mohamed Kanno situation.
The international midfielder joined Al-Hilal in 2017 on a five-year contract. As that deal ran down last winter and he was allowed to talk to other clubs ahead of becoming a free agent, he signed a contract with bitter Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr. Shortly after, however, he had a change of heart and agreed to stay at Al-Hilal. The outcome of signing contracts with two different clubs was a fine and a ban on registering new players.
With pre-season training already starting, Al-Hilal bosses are pushing for a decision on their appeal to be made as soon as possible. If the ban is lifted, then there will be transfer activity. Until then, there is little they can do in terms of getting new players in.
The focus has been on keeping existing stars, by extending the contract for defender Jang Hyun-soo, who had been expected to return to South Korea this summer.
Getting some other players to stay may be more difficult. Al-Hilal beat off a number of European rivals for the signature of Brazilian Matheus Pereira last summer, but the playmaker has been heavily linked with a move to his homeland. There are also rumors that Odion Ighalo, the league’s top goal scorer last season, is wanted back in Europe and also would not mind a return.
If this continues, then Al-Hilal are faced with either letting two of the biggest stars in the league go without being able to replace them or keeping players who may not want to stay. It is not an ideal situation for Diaz, who will also be staying after arriving in February and steering the team to an unlikely title.
When the Argentine arrived, Al-Ittihad were 16 points ahead of Al-Hilal but ended up finishing second. There is a determination that next season will not see a repeat of such heartbreak and disappointment. The Jeddah club’s biggest signing is that of Nuno Espirito Santo. The Portuguese coach replaces Cosmin Contra who has paid the price for letting a double-digit lead at the top of the table slip.
From his time in his homeland, Spain and, most recently, with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, it is clear what the 48-year-old will bring to the Red Sea port city squad. The team will be compact, well-organized, and defensively sound. That is what Al-Ittihad bosses want after the tail end of last season when issues at the back contributed to the Tigers winning just one of their last six games and losing the chance to take a first title since 2009.
His first major signing reflected Nuno’s way of thinking, and it could be an excellent one. Tareq Hamed played close to 300 games for Egyptian giants Zamalek and won 12 trophies along the way. Now the defensive midfielder has already annoyed some fans and delighted others by saying that he has swapped the biggest club in Africa for the biggest in Asia. That is up for debate, but his qualities are not.
The 33-year-old is a ferocious, intelligent, and hard-working defensive midfielder who will add bite and fighting spirit to the middle while offering more protection to Al-Ittihad’s backline than had previously been the case. It will not have escaped the attention of fans in Egypt that he will be linking up with central defender Ahmed Hegazi and it could be quite a combination.
With a foreign contingent that includes Romarinho, Igor Coronado, and Abderrazak Hamdallah (the jury is still out on Brazilian midfielder Bruno Henrique) to call upon, then there is not much that needs to change for Nuno, but the addition of Hamed adds experience, a winning mentality, and more besides.
The title race was all about Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad last season, but Al-Nassr, who finished third, have been taking the lead this summer in the transfer market. David Ospina, the Colombian goalkeeper formerly of Arsenal, has come in from Napoli and arrived in Riyadh to join up with new and very highly rated Ivory Coast full-back Ghislain Konan. The most recent addition is former Bayern Munich and Marseille midfielder Luiz Gustavo.
New coach Rudi Garcia, another big addition, can have few complaints with the backing he has received from the club so far. If this new talent gels on the pitch, Al-Nassr will surely mount a formidable challenge next season.
So far this summer, the teams that finished in second and third last season have strengthened under new, high-profile coaches. Al-Hilal however are stuck in transfer limbo. Defending a league title is hard enough but it is getting harder by the day.