Al-Ittihad name Nuno Espirito Santo as head coach

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LONDON: Al-Ittihad appointed Nuno Espirito Santo as head coach on Monday, with the former Valencia, Porto and Tottenham Hotspur boss replacing Cosmin Contra at the eight-time champions of Saudi Arabia.

The Portuguese tactician, who spent four years in charge of Wolverhampton Wanderers before heading to North London in the summer of 2021, has been available since being dismissed by Spurs in November after just four months in charge. He has been handed a two-year contract by the Jeddah giants with his main task to deliver a first title since 2009.

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After spells with Valencia and Porto, the former goalkeeper took over at Wolves in 2017. After securing promotion into the English Premier League, he then established the West Midlands club as a force in the top tier. That record took him to Tottenham but after three wins in the first three games of last season, it all started to go wrong at White Hart Lane with just nine goals scored in the first 10 league games. After damaging defeats at the hands of Arsenal and Manchester United, he received his marching orders.

Unlike at Tottenham, however, when Nuno arrived after a number of other coaches had turned the job down or were unavailable, he has been Al-Ittihad’s number one target after the decision was made not to offer Contra a new deal.

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The club announced the departure of the Romanian, whose contract ended last week, earlier in the day and wasted no time in announcing their new man.

Contra had talked openly of his desire to stay at the club and of his plans for next season. After his appointment last August, the former Dinamo Bucharest coach took Al-Ittihad clear at the top of the table to the extent that, in February, they were 16 points clear of Al-Hilal. It all went wrong as the Tigers dropped 13 points from the final eight games of the season, a ruin that allowed Al-Hilal to take the title on the final day.

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“I would like to apologize that we let you down at the last minute, and although we did our best, we did not live up to the aspirations of our fans,” Contra said on social media. He highlighted that great champions bounce back from big disappointments by learning from their mistakes. “Al-Ittihad will return next season stronger to achieve the title that we have been waiting for a long time,” he added.

They will do so without him. The way the team threw away the title has led management to believe that a firmer pair of hands was needed at the helm. There was particular disquiet at the hugely damaging twin defeats against Al-Hilal in the run-in and the way Ittihad threw away a 3-1 lead against Al-Feiha to draw 4-4 on May 6. That the latter result came just three days after Al-Hilal had surprisingly been defeated by Al-Fateh, giving Al-Ittihad an opportunity to take a huge step toward the title, was painful and a sign, so those in charge believe, of a problem with the team’s mentality especially in pressure situations.

Nuno’s reputation for producing pragmatic teams that are hard to beat has earned him plus points within the Jeddah hierarchy. His goal is clear: To deliver a first league title to this corner of Jeddah since 2009, a dry run that has gone on too long for all involved with the two-time Asian champions.

He has, according to those behind the scenes at the club, already made it clear as to which players he wants to bring in, and there should be some familiar faces from the English Premier League heading to the Red Sea port. There will already be talent waiting. The club are keen to keep Brazilian attacking duo Romarinho, who scored 20 goals last season, and Igor Coronado. Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah is also wanted though there is interest from elsewhere in the region as well as Europe. Egyptian center-back Ahmed Hegazi is also likely to stay.

With Nuno Santo’s arrival at Al-Ittihad coming just days after Rudi Garcia took charge of Al-Nassr, who finished third last season and Al-Hilal’s announcement that they have renewed the contract of head coach Ramon Diaz, next season is already shaping up to be exciting. Al-Ittihad have got their man and have their sights set upon going one better in 2023.

 

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