Al Ittihad on the comeback trail

In recent years, Al Ittihad have been one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful sides in Asia, winning the AFC Champions League twice and reaching the final two years ago. Though their domestic form has dipped of late, the club’s continental ambitions appear undimmed, a dramatic 4-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor giving them the perfect launchpad for their 2012 AFC Champions League campaign. takes a look at the secret behind Al Ittihad’s Asian recurring success and the odds of them reclaiming the title of continental champions.

Reaching the summit
Al Ittihad last won the Saudi league in 2009, when they finished five points clear at the top of the table from fierce rivals Al Hilal, who had taken the title for the previous two seasons.

That same year, the Jeddah-based side enjoyed a superb run in the AFC Champions League, reaching the final where Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers defeated them 2-1 to deny the Saudis a third continental title.

Al Ittihad have proved unable to repeat their impressive form in subsequent seasons. In the Saudi League they have come in second behind Al Hilal two years running, while in Asia a disappointing 2010 campaign saw them fail to qualify for the group stages of the AFC Champions League, though they improved last year by reaching the semi-finals.

Problems on the pitch have been exacerbated by a high turnover of coaches. Since the 2009 league title, the club has had a number of different managers, starting with Argentinian Gabriel Calderon, who was succeeded in 2010 by fellow-countryman Enzo Trossero, Portugal’s Manual Jose and finally, Jose's compatriot Toni Oliveira.

The change begins
The club’s fortunes gradually began to change with the appointment of Major General Mohammed Al Juhani as club president in July 2011. His first move was to bring in a new head coach - Slovenia’s Matjaz Kek, who had led his country’s national side in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.   

Although the 50-year-old Kek brought a vast amount of experience to the role it was clearly not enough for an ailing Al Ittihad, who went on to suffer eight consecutive defeats in the domestic league, the last of which was to Al Raed. Kek was dismissed in February of this year.

His replacement, Spain’s Raul Caneda, took over in March and met with instant success, guiding his charges to a superb Group B victory against Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor.

Starting afresh
The victory, thanks to a brace from Mohammed Abusabaan, and a goal apiece from Bahrain’s Abdulla Omar and Moroccan international Faouzi Abdelghni, has given the Tigers a huge boost.

After the game a delighted Caneda announced that he hoped to introduce a new style of football to the Saudi side. “I’m very happy to get a win in my first game in charge,” said the 43-year-old coach. “It was tough in the run-up to this match. We didn’t know what to expect because I haven’t had enough time in charge, but we put some plans in place and the players carried them out to the letter. It was an excellent performance.”

“We are just so pleased to beat Pakhtakor,” Caneda added, “because the team haven’t won for quite a while. I’ve come to Al Ittihad to introduce a new way of playing.”

Previously an assistant coach at Spanish clubs Real Sociedad and Almeria, Caneda’s golden touch has not faded. Since beating Pakhtakor, Al Ittihad have notched domestic league victories over Al Qadisiyah and Al Faysali to lift them to sixth place in the standings.

The Spaniard's fourth game in charge takes place in the AFC Champions League this Tuesday, against Qatar’s Al Arabi, and Caneda will be hoping his winning run continues to set Al Ittihad firmly on the comeback trail.