Nuno praises Al Ittihad on title win as rumours swirl of Benzema switch to Saudi Arabia

Newly crowned Pro League champions sign off season with 2-0 win over Al Tai

Al Ittihad celebrated a first Saudi Pro League title in 14 years. AFP
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Nuno Espirito Santo dedicated Al Ittihad’s Saudi Pro League title to his players, attributing the club’s first top-flight success in 14 years to his side’s self-belief.

The Jeddah club were celebrated as Saudi champions at a vibrant King Abdullah Sports City Stadium on Wednesday night having on Saturday sealed the trophy with one match to spare.

Now nine-time Saudi champions, Ittihad brought down the curtain on their 2022/23 campaign with a 2-0 win against Al Tai, meaning they finished the season five points ahead of second-placed Al Nassr.

Nassr won their final match, also on Wednesday night, although Cristiano Ronaldo missed the 3-0 victory at home to Al Fateh through injury.

Asked about his impact on the team since arriving last July, Nuno told SSC Sports: “The real people that made this possible was the players. Football is played by the players – no one can doubt this.

“We support them, we try to help them with their decisions. Our management helps us to provide the right environment for them to work. But the job is their job. The staff helps, but who makes it happen, is the players. It’s not about me, it’s about the players.

“They are the ones. The way they engage themselves, the day-by-day situation, the problems that we have, how we overcome, how we bounce back from bad moments. How we find solutions to the team, but always try to help the players.”

Nuno, in his first management role since being dismissed as Tottenham Hotspur head coach in November 2021, said the staff and players used the disappointment of last season as motivation this time around. Last season, Ittihad let slip a 16-point lead over Al Hilal to eventually lose out on the title.

However, this campaign, Ittihad lost only two league matches, while they boasted the division’s best defensive record (13 goals conceded) and second-best attack (60 goals).

Again focusing on the players, Nuno said: “If they don’t believe, nothing is possible. First of all, we have to create this bond that we create in this group. We trust each other. Then find the solutions. But if they don’t believe, it’s impossible. That was the main point.

“During the season we had bad games, not so good results. But it was important that we immediately react, immediately we bounce back. That shows a lot of commitment, a lot of character from the players.

“The support of the fans was very important. The home factor during this season was huge for us. I felt every time that we play at home we could switch the mood of the game, with the help of the fans, and our opponents felt the weight of playing here in our stadium.

“That was very good, and I cannot thank them enough. If I could, I would go into the stands and hug each and every one of them for their help.”

Messi in talks over $320 million-a-year move to Saudi Arabia

Messi in talks over $320 million-a-year move to Saudi Arabia

Meanwhile, Nuno could soon be joined at Ittihad by Karim Benzema. The Real Madrid forward, 35, has received a lucrative offer to join the Saudi Pro League, with the newly crowned champions touted as the most probable destination.

Benzema’s future is expected to be made clear in the coming days, with the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner understood to be increasingly likely to move to the kingdom. As of yet, no official announcement has been made.

Should he make the switch, Benzema will play in the league alongside former Madrid teammate Ronaldo. The Portugal captain, 38, signed for Nassr in December.

Saudi football is set for a major summer, with a number of prominent stars anticipated to land in the Pro League. There is growing confidence Lionel Messi, Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain, will make the move to record 18-time champions Hilal once his contract expires at Paris Saint-Germain.

Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Angel Di Maria, N’Golo Kante and Sadio Mane are among other names linked with Saudi.

On Wednesday night, the country’s minister of sports, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, was asked about Benzema and Messi signing, but replied: “Please wait until we officially announce it. The season just ended today … clubs, as I mentioned before, are the ones who officially announce such news and, God willing, they will do so at the right time."

Updated: June 01, 2023, 10:22 AM