Al-Ittihad’s chances of clinching a first Saudi Professional League title since 2009 were dented this week with star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah banned for four months just weeks ahead of the 2022-23 season. To make matters worse, the club are also unable to register new players in the next transfer window.
The punishment was handed down by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation on Tuesday after a dispute between his former club Al-Nassr which had accused him, among other things, of conspiring to leave the team. His contract was cancelled by the Riyadh giants in November and he then joined Al-Ittihad in January.
The 31-year-old then scored 12 league goals in 13 games for the Tigers in the second half of last season. It wasn’t quite enough to win the championship however as the Jeddah outfit, who had a double-digit lead at the top of the table in February, stumbled and took just five points from the final six games to finish second behind Al-Hilal in June.
It was a painful ending to a campaign and cost Cosmin Contra his job as coach, the Romanian being replaced by Nuno Espirito Santo in July. The appointment of the experienced Portuguese boss, who was in charge of Tottenham Hotspur this time last year, was a big statement.
Now, however, Nuno has to deal with the lengthy absence of one of the most consistent goal-getters in Asian football in recent years. He saw it for himself last Friday as Hamdallah scored the only goal of the game as Al-Ittihad defeated Swiss club Lucerne 1-0. It was an encouraging performance and victory against a European team as the Saudi Arabian giants prepare for a new season.
The Moroccan showed the poaching skills that had seen him find the net so consistently over the years. The match also showed how big a miss he will be in the early stages of the season. At least the new boss can still call upon Romarinho. The Brazilian, who netted 20 times last season, is going to be more important than ever.
The good news is that the ban on registering new players will not come into effect until the January transfer window. This means that this summer’s signings will be unaffected. Tarek Hamed has arrived from Egyptian giants Zamalek to bolster Al-Ittihad’s midfield. Al-Ittihad have also targeted Leeds United winger Helder Costa to boost the attack. The former Portuguese international has worked with Nuno at Wolverhampton Wanderers and the coach sees him as a missing link in the quest for the title.
It remains to be seen what impact the ban will have. Nuno is already into pre-season and trying to make Al-Ittihad more compact and more difficult to beat. As well as giving the 48-year-old an introduction into Saudi Arabian football, it means that there is more pressure on the coach and the club to get everything right this summer. Unless there is an appeal that reverses or reduces the punishment just handed out, and that is a possibility, Al-Ittihad are not going to be able to strengthen in the middle of the season or replace injured stars. If there is a player who catches their eye at the World Cup, there will be no possibility of getting in there before anybody else to make a signing.
It could be worse. At least title rivals Al-Hilal are in a similar situation. After their punishment over midfielder Mohamed Kanno signing contracts with two clubs, the champions are also unable to register new players and have been focusing on extending the contracts of existing players to ensure they stay for another year or two. Yet Al-Hilal are hoping that their appeal will be successful and the decision will be overturned soon.
That would be bad news for Al-Ittihad with Al-Nassr also strengthening in the summer. Last year’s third-placed team appointed Rudi Garcia as head coach. The former Lyon, Marseille and Roma boss has added Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina, Ivorian full-back Ghislain Konan and Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo to an already strong squad.
It is ironic that the top two teams have, or will have, problems in the transfer market that are connected to Al-Nassr, the team with designs on the title. It means the next few weeks are even more important for Al-Ittihad. If the Tigers are to end that title drought, then this summer needs to be perfect as there will be no recruiting in the winter.
At least Hamdallah will be back then and should also have a point to prove and be hungrier than ever for goals. In fact, he may feel like a new signing and unless anything changes, that is the best the club will be able to hope for once the new season is up and running.