RIYADH: If Al-Ittihad are looking for a positive spin on their patchy form heading into the FIFA Club World Cup, which kicks off in Jeddah this week, they need look no further than their fierce Saudi rivals, Al-Hilal.
It was only earlier this year that the Riyadh giants embarked on their own Club World Cup campaign, and they did so on the back of a run of form domestically that saw them win only three of their seven matches before the tournament began, and included a shock loss to Al-Fayha in their penultimate match before jetting off for Morocco.
But wins over Wydad Casablanca and Flamengo saw them become only the third Asian club to make it through to the final, where they put in an impressive showing in a 5-3 defeat to Real Madrid.
On the scoresheet that night for the Spanish giants was a certain Karim Benzema, who will headline the star names for Al-Ittihad as they open their campaign against Oceania champions Auckland City on Tuesday.
That will give comfort to Marcelo Gallardo after his side suffered a shock 3-1 defeat at the hands of mid-table Damac over the weekend, a loss that has seen them fall 16 points behind Al-Hilal and drop to fifth place in the Roshn Saudi League.
Having won four of their previous five after parting ways with last season’s title-winning coach Nuno Espirito Santo, it is a loss that might also have shaken some of the confidence in the Ittihad side as they come to terms with life under Argentine Gallardo.
Despite the apparent gulf between the two sides, Gallardo knows there is no room for any complacency against the New Zealand side, who are no strangers to this stage, this being their 11th appearance.
They have also proved to be giant-killers in the past as well, finishing third at the 2014 tournament in Morocco.
“Any game in the Club World Cup is always very tough,” Gallardo is quoted as saying on the FIFA website.
“The first game always has the nervousness factor too. It’s one game only, a knockout match, you need to win to stay alive in the competition. We know Auckland will be tough to beat.”
Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe also chooses to toe the party line, while saying the side are taking it one game at a time, but does admit: “It costs nothing to dream.”
With the talent they now have at their disposal — the likes of Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho, Igor Coronado, and Romarinho to name just a few — there is no reason Al-Ittihad should not be dreaming big and looking to match what Al-Hilal did last year.
But they enter the tournament carrying a far heavier burden than their Riyadh rivals did earlier this year.
Such has been the transformation in Saudi football over the past 12 months, it is no stretch to say Al-Ittihad are carrying the entire reputation of Saudi football on their shoulders.
While the investment is about far more than just results at the Club World Cup, it offers the first opportunity for Saudi football to show its wares on the international stage, and a good performance will go a long way to showing that Saudi football is indeed heading in the right direction.
A poor performance, however, and the critics will very quickly, and only too happily, rush to judge the Saudi splurge as an expensive flop.
While Al-Ittihad will attract most of the attention over the first week, it is worth remembering they come to the tournament merely as hosts rather than Asian champions.
That title belongs to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds, making their third appearance at the Club World Cup after third (2007) and fifth-placed (2017) performances previously.
Like Al-Ittihad, they arrive in Jeddah on the back of a run of poor form that saw them not only slip from the top three on the final day of the J. League season, but also crash out of the AFC Champions League in the group stage after a shock defeat to Vietnam’s Hanoi FC last week.
Then there is the rather peculiar situation with the position of head coach.
Poland’s Maciej Skorza has already announced his departure after just one season in Japan, with Norwegian Per-Mathias Hogmo announced last week as his replacement.
Skorza will still take the reins in Jeddah, however, despite the fact he has already tendered his resignation and his successor has been appointed.
Should either Al-Ittihad or Urawa make the final, they will become the fourth team from Asia to do so in the last eight years — a nice feather in the cap for football in this region, in what is the last tournament to be played under the existing seven-team format.
By the time the next Club World Cup rolls around, to be played in the US in 2025 with 32 teams, we could see multiple Saudi clubs competing. It is just Al-Ittihad this time, but the whole world will still be watching.