Analysis: What’s gone wrong for Karim Benzema in Saudi Arabia?

From the first team video that emerged after Karim Benzema arrived at Al Ittihad, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner didn’t look comfortable.

Sat alone at the back of the coach, Benzema awkwardly watched his teammates rhythmically serenade their new talisman. Despite the apparent discomfort, Benzema marked his debut with a sumptuous winning goal.

The honeymoon period didn’t last long. At the halfway stage of the season, the reigning top-flight champions trail table-topping Al Hilal by 25 points. Benzema can boast as many league goals (nine) as ex-Barcelona misfit Malcom and five fewer than Tottenham Hotspur ‘hall-of-famer’ Georges-Kevin N’Koudou.

Consequently, Benzema is reported to be searching for an escape route – although any transfer could prove complex given the numerous layers of bureaucracy that would have to sanction a move.

How did it come to this?

  • Stunning Classico collapse

During the 2022/23 campaign, Benzema claimed the Ballon d’Or, while Aleksandar Mitrovic didn’t even win Fulham’s player of the season. Yet, when the pair went head-to-head in the first Saudi Classico of the current campaign, Mitrovic emerged with a victorious hat-trick.

Benzema found the net himself, deftly flicking beyond Al Hilal’s Yassine Bounou as Al Ittihad raced into a 3-1 half-time lead. But the Tigers had no answer for the indefatigable visiting right-back Saud Abdulhamid, who swung the ball in for Mitrovic’s first two goals.

The burly Serbian completed his treble with an equaliser from the penalty spot before Salem Al Dawsari somersaulted across the pitch in celebration of his unlikely winner in the 71st minute. Al Ittihad led the league without conceding a goal before Al Hilal punctured Benzema’s bright start. They have not recovered since.

  • Injury issues

As Al Ittihad prepared for their AFC Champions League opener against Uzbekistan’s OKMK Olmaliq, Benzema faced the media as usual. The Frenchman failed to mention that he would not feature in the match. Throughout the season, Benzema has grimaced and groaned about various niggling issues. During his last year with Real Madrid, the 36-year-old missed 15 games due to fitness complaints.

Benzema was forced to sit out five consecutive matches without Al Ittihad officially confirming the reason for his absence as September bled into October. Then, just as mysteriously as he stepped away, Benzema reappeared for the visit of an Al Ahli with Roberto Firmino and Riyad Mahrez.

The Tigers didn’t lose once during Benzema’s unexplained departure yet failed to win the first four league games of his return. After a 1-0 defeat to Al Ahli, Benzema opened the scoring against high-flying Al Taawoun. Yet, within four first-half minutes, Benzema inadvertently picked out his own net, flinching at a corner kick which skidded off his head and past Marcelo Grohe.

During this barren stretch, the reigning champions were also held to a 2-2 draw by lowly Al Hazem, the side propping up the Saudi top-flight table.

  • Political pawn

Beyond his battles with a new country, club and climate, Benzema has had to withstand unfounded accusations from point-scoring politicians back in France. After posting a message of solidarity to “the people of Gaza” on social media as the Israel-Hamas conflict unfolded in October, Benzema was singled out by French interior minister Gerald Darmanin.

“Benzema is notoriously linked with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Darmanin declared on French broadcaster CNews, “we all know it.” The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist movement that is banned in several countries, including Benzema’s new home Saudi Arabia.

Darmanin offered no evidence and Benzema has refuted the accusations, launching a legal case against the French politician in January. “I am aware of the extent to which, because of my notoriety, I am being used in political games,” Benzema observed, “which are all the more scandalous given that the dramatic events since 7 October deserve something quite different from this type of statement.”

  • Managerial tensions

The first flickers of discontent between Benzema and Nuno Espirito Santo emerged as early as August. The current Nottingham Forest boss had led Al Ittihad to the club’s first league title since 2009 but struggled to recapture that spark with a newly star-studded team.

Nuno dismissed those summer reports of discontent as “bullsh*t” but was no longer in a position to defend his relationship with the Frenchman when rumours of a decisive dressing room spat emerged in November.

As Al Ittihad trailed Iraq’s Air Force Club 1-0 at half-time in a Champions League tie, Nuno allegedly took his ire out at Benzema. “You are a great player, but it seems that you are being lazy in putting pressure on the opponent,” the manager told his captain, as reported by Saudi publication Arriyadiyah.

Benzema questioned why he was being singled out and Nuno explained: “You are the team leader, the players’ role model, and the most important player in it. You must take the lead and be an example for all the players.”

Within ten minutes of the restart, Al Ittihad conceded again and limped to a shock defeat. Nuno was sacked the following day.

  • Home tournament exit

Al Ittihad earned a spot at this winter’s Club World Cup as the reigning league champions of the host nation. Yet, before the Tigers could set up a glamour tie against one of the South American or European giants, they fell at the hands of Egyptian outfit Al Ahly in front of their own fans.

Benzema had the chance to equalise for Al Ittihad, now under the stewardship of former River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo, in the first half only to have his penalty brilliantly saved by Mohamed El Shenawy.

The Frenchman eventually found the net but only after 92 minutes had elapsed and with his side already trailing by three goals. That painful defeat would prove to be the first of three consecutive losses to see out the calendar year, culminating in a 5-2 thrashing dished out by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr.

  • Extended holiday

As the Saudi top flight took a mid-season break for the Asian Cup, Benzema jetted off to Mauritius on holiday. Initial reports suggested the player was given some extra time off by Gallardo before the Argentine banned him entirely from the team’s training camp in Dubai as he failed to materialise.

90min understands that Benzema’s excuse for his delay, namely a cyclone warning preventing any flights from the tropical island, was genuine. Nevertheless, by the time Benzema returned to the club, 17 days late, he conducted a “raging” meeting with manager Gallardo, per AFP.

Despite an extended stay on the beach, Benzema claimed to be under too much “pressure” to deliver his best performances for Al Ittihad. The Tigers are famed for their passionate fanbase and boast the third-highest average attendance in the Pro League (19,870) but Benzema is hardly unfamiliar with a demanding crowd after 14 years at Real Madrid.

Lyon have distanced themselves from a move for their former player, citing his exorbitant wages, but Benzema is still eagerly eyeing an exit, even on a “temporary” basis.

What we know

  • Benzema joined Al Ittihad after running down his Real Madrid contract
  • The 2022 Ballon d’Or winner has scored nine league goals in 15 games
  • Reigning champions Al Ittihad trail runaway leaders Al Hilal by 25 points.

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