Connect with us


Karim Benzema bust-up and Cristiano Ronaldo’s rotten start to the season shows Pro League superstars they won’t have things all their own way in Saudi Arabia



The big-name players that moved to the Middle East were expected to dominate, but things have not gone that way so far

The Saudi Pro League’s entrance into the transfer market this summer may have changed football forever. Cristiano Ronaldo’s decision to join Al-Nassr in January opened the door, and Europe’s best players have since flooded over to the Middle East to experience a ‘new challenge’ – and become even more wealthy in the process.

So much of the debate surrounding this great migration has focused on off-field considerations, such as transfer fees, wages and commercial potential. Whereas the effect that this influx of talent might have on the pitch was scarcely considered.However, the season is now finally underway and the performances of these glitzy arrivals have been surprising to say the least. Marquee signings like Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez were expected to take the Pro League by storm. Instead, the European imports have had variable success.Perhaps what’s been even more surprising is that some of them have struggled to get their own way in the dressing room, allaying any fears that Pro League clubs would bend to every whim of their new signings.

Benzema and Al-Ittihad is not a happy marriage

The prime example of such tension is Benzema’s apparent power struggle with Nuno Espirito Santo at Al-Ittihad. The Frenchman is yet to score in the league since joining the Saudi champions, and there’s been a storm brewing in the dressing room too.

Shortly after arriving at the club, Benzema is said to have requested the captaincy, but Nuno refused to budge, with the armband remaining with Brazilian forward Romarinho this season.

This disagreement is threatening to spiral into a full-blown internal war. Benzema is understood to be ‘uncomfortable’ at Al-Ittihad, meaning a quite sensational early-season departure cannot be ruled out. All of this is playing out amid a backdrop of further uncertainty.

Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat recently reported that there is a disagreement over foreign player registration at the club. Former West Brom defender Ahmed Hegazi is currently injured but is demanding his contract be paid up in full if Al-Ittihad wants him to leave. Skipper Romarinho is even understood to have asked to depart at one stage

Then there’s the strange story of Jota, a £25 million ($31.7m) arrival from Celtic in July, who is apparently set to exit after just a few weeks. The reasons for his apparent departure are not entirely clear and nothing is confirmed yet, but it’s indicative of the wider culture of chaos that has engulfed the champions this summer.

It’s not what Benzema signed up for when he agreed to swap Madrid for Jeddah back in June.

Ronaldo makes shaky start

It’s not just the recent signings that haven’t had it all their own way in the Pro League this season. The division’s poster boy, Ronaldo, has also endured a challenging start to the campaign.

Since helping his side lift the Arab Club Champions Cup by grabbing a fine brace against Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr’s form has fallen off a cliff. With Ronaldo injured, they slipped to a shock defeat against Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq on the opening day.

Things didn’t go much better when they hosted Al-Taawoun the following week, with Ronaldo looking far from fit as his team suffered another disappointing loss. Victory over Shabab Al-Ahli in the AFC Champions League may look like a return to form, but they made hard work of their win – even if some questionable refereeing decisions made their task much harder.

So, what’s going wrong? Well, we are used to Premier League managers complaining about fixture congestion, but Saudi clubs also have to contend with tricky schedules too. Al-Nassr boss Luis Castro recently fumed after his side had to play Al-Ettifaq just 48 hours after that aforementioned Arab Club Champions Cup final

“I do not know how to play on Monday, it is impossible, besides that we played extra-time in the final tonight. We have to respect the players. It is impossible for us to play after 48 hours of a strong final,” he said.

In this sense, playing at the top clubs in Saudi is far from the holiday it was presented as by some onlookers this summer. Combine the heavy fixture load with the intense heat and it’s a recipe for underperformance.