Al Ittihad and Karim Benzema under pressure to perform at Fifa Club World Cup

Saudi Pro League champions face Auckland City in first-round match on Tuesday

Karim Benzema left Real Madrid to join Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad during the summer. AFP
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Amid Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented rush for football gold this past summer, the feeling was that Al Ittihad were being rebuilt with one eye on this week.

As the kingdom’s reigning national champions, the Jeddah side make perfect hosts for the country’s first staging of the Fifa Club World Cup, the home team in the seven-club tournament that welcomes to Saudi Arabia’s second city the recent best from differing continents.

Manchester City were confirmed for the event four days after Karim Benzema signed on at Ittihad. In defeating Inter Milan in Istanbul, the European champions sealed a December date with the then-Ballon d’Or holder; they had even dispatched Benzema and Real Madrid en route to the Uefa Champions League crown.

Nevertheless, the Frenchman was soon joined in Jeddah by compatriot N’Golo Kante, a World Cup winner and hoarder of every major European club trinket, too. The most recent, in fact, was the Club World Cup with Chelsea in Abu Dhabi early last year.

Of course, other starry names swiftly followed. Fabinho, a linchpin in Liverpool’s domestic and continental success under Jurgen Klopp, and another with a Club World Cup crown.

Jota, Celtic’s enterprising winger who, unlike his three new teammates, was some way from his peak. At 24, the Portuguese was two years younger than Luiz Felipe, another Ittihad summer recruit. The Brazil-born defender, who qualifies for Italy, spent the past six years at Lazio and Real Betis.

Part of the idea, the theory goes, was to have not simply a team capable of competing at the sharp end of the rapidly burgeoning Saudi Pro League – Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ahli were significantly restocked also – and in Asia.

But to represent the country with distinction at its inaugural Club World Cup – and the tournament’s final in its current guise (it swells to 32 teams next time out, in 2025).

Ittihad’s participation, and by extension Saudi Arabia’s new football landscape, is expected to draw even more international attention between Tuesday’s kick off and the final on December 22. A sturdy performance from its home team would therefore be welcome.

However, Ittihad’s preparations have been far from ideal. Last month, on the back of a solitary win in nine games underlined by an insipid Champions League defeat to Iraq’s Air Force Club, league-winning manager Nuno Espirito Santo was dismissed. Ittihad lay sixth in the table.

Marcelo Gallardo, the gilded Argentine, was promptly installed, a consummate and constant trophy collector with boyhood club River Plate. “El Muneco” – “The Doll” – had been consistently linked with Europe’s establishment, both while in charge of River and during the eight months since he decided to depart, but instead he chose Saudi Arabia for his first coaching role outside South America.

Gallardo opened his tenure with a draw away to Al Ettifaq, then oversaw three successive victories. Yet last Thursday’s 3-1 defeat at an albeit in-form Damac, and with some prominent players omitted, offered a note of caution. The corner had not been completely turned.

For sure, Ittihad are favourites to advance from the opening match against Oceania champions Auckland City, even if the New Zealanders are participating in a record-extending 11th Club World Cup. In 2014, they took home bronze, highlighting the danger of underestimating them.

Get past Auckland, and Egyptian titans Al Ahly will form a considerable challenge in the next round; a 10th Club World Cup for the African champions signals their experience on this stage.

That said, Gallardo knows well the tournament, also. In 2015, his River Plate finished runner-up to Barcelona in Japan. As one of several South Americans among Ittihad's current set-up – Felipe, unfortunately, is ruled out with injury – he will attach extra significance to a competition often coveted on that continent.

Last year, Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal showed the value of a deep run. Like Ittihad, they came into the Club World Cup in wretched nick, but convalesced considerably in Morocco to defeat Wydad Casablanca and Flamengo to meet Madrid in the final.

Only the third Asian team to reach the showpiece, Hilal were valiant runners-up, losing 5-3 to the newly anointed five-time winners. Benzema, pre-Ittihad, was one of the names on the scoresheet.

The forward's presence as captain now should serve as a comfort and a catalyst as Ittihad hold home hopes in a history-making Club World Cup.

A strong showing in Jeddah feels necessary not only for the Saudi champions, but the kingdom’s formidable and far-reaching football project, too.

Updated: December 12, 2023, 7:50 AM