Among a host of fascinating King’s Cup ties this week is the visit of star-studded Saudi Pro League leaders Al-Ittihad to second-tier side Al-Kholood on Tuesday.
While there is every chance that Nuno Espirito Santo will rest some of his big players, opposite number Fabiano Flora is hoping that the likes of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and Jota will take to the field at Al-Kholood’s modest 8,000-capacity ground, which they share with Saudi Pro League side Al-Hazem.
“Of course, this is one of the biggest matches of my coaching career, Flora told Arab News ahead of the King’s Cup clash.
“Al-Ittihad is not just the biggest team in Saudi Arabia as the champions last season. This is a club that is one of the most important in Asia, too, and has the capacity to win the AFC Champions League.
“It is a tough game against Nuno because they have a great team with high-quality players. We know all of them — Benzema, Fabinho, Kante. It’s a big team and a big challenge, but at the same time it is a great experience for me and my players.”
Flora has admired the work done at Al-Ittihad by fellow Portuguese coach Nuno.
“Nuno has obviously had a great career now, working with big clubs and with big experience,” Flora said. “He has clear principles in the way he wants his team to play and from what I see, he tries to keep things simple for his players.
“Al-Ittihad are adaptable to different formations and tactics, but the football they play is not complex — they play effectively with simple processes. We know this will be a difficult game.”
Flora has been in charge of Al-Kholood for just three weeks, but has made an immediate impact, leading the club to three successive wins in the Saudi First Division since his arrival. Al-Ittihad will represent a different challenge entirely, but the 38-year-old insists his side are primed to cause a cup upset.
“It is still early days for me, but I think the team is improving and we feel ready to compete,” he said. “In the league we have beaten Al-Batin, who came from the Saudi Pro League last season, and also Al-Arabi, who have spent a lot of money to try to get promotion this year.
“We are in a good moment so let’s see. Everything is possible in football; with good organization, with a good mentality, I think we can play a very good match and we can compete with Al-Ittihad.”
Flora hopes that the experience of playing against the reigning Saudi Pro League champions will give Al-Kholood players the belief that they can gain promotion this season, although he recognizes that the Saudi First Division is hugely competitive.
“I came here because I believe we can do some something important. We know it is difficult for us because there has been some big investment from four or five teams this season, but we also know that there is quality in our team.”
Flora’s coaching career has been a globetrotting adventure that began in traditional surroundings at the academy of Serie A side Lazio, but has also taken in less-traditional footballing nations, including Myanmar, Madagascar and Timor-Leste.
“Working in different places gives you such a rich experience as a coach — you are not just learning about the tactical and technical side of the game but about society and culture, too. You become more adaptable as a coach.”
Managers such as Arrigo Sacchi, Jose Mourinho and Carlos Alberto Parreira have demonstrated that you do not need to have a professional football career to become a successful coach, and it is a blueprint that Flora is trying to follow.
“Of course, when you are a player and have lived inside the group, you understand the feelings players have in certain moments.
“But when you don’t play, you have more time to learn. This is a big difference. You start to think early on about football — how you can improve players, how you can improve as a coach — and you can study the game in more depth. As a player, you just don’t have this time.”
Flora spent a number of years at Lazio before working at Juventus when Antonio Conte was first-team coach.
“I learned a lot in in Italy; I think they stay one step in front of all coaches in the world in terms of their tactical approach,” Flora said.
“When you work in the youth leagues with these big clubs with a great history, of course I was able to connect with people like Filippo Inzaghi and Paolo Negro — important players who have had valuable experience. You learn from them and the way they think about football.”
Just 15 months ago, Flora’s colorful coaching career had taken him to Latvia, but on Monday he will test his tactical acumen against a world-class coach and a team bursting with talented players. It is an opportunity he is relishing.
“It’s a good feeling, of course, when you play against a big club with big players. When you are young or early in your career, you are always thinking about the future and whether these moments might come.
“You want to believe it will happen so when it does, this feels like a great reward for the decisions you have made, the places you have coached, the challenges you have taken. Really, I feel a great satisfaction and I am looking forward to this match.”