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.