Former Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema has been left out of Saudi club Al Ittihad’s squad for their first knockout match in this season’s Asian (AFC) Champions League, according to a report.
Striker Benzema, who has been predictably prolific since joining the Saudi Pro League side last summer, will not make the trip to Uzbekistan to face Navbahor Namangan in the round of 16 of the competition, AS has said.
The Spanish outlet added that coach Marcelo Gallardo is only able to include five non-Asian players for AFC Champions League matches, listing centre-back Ahmed Hegazy, midfielders N’Golo Kante and Fabinho and forwards Romarinho and Abderrazak Hamdallah as the players picked by him.
Benzema is said to have been training alone at club facilities in Saudi Arabia because of a “lack of competitive rhythm”, having missed both of Al Ittihad’s matches in February following a winter break in Saudi Arabia which began in December and a training camp in Dubai.
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The captain has produced 12 goals and five assists in 20 appearances in all competitions but is yet to score in the AFC Champions League, featuring in two of their six group-stage matches.
Benzema out of squad: More transfer rumours ahead?
A five-time Uefa Champions League winner with former club Real Madrid, Benzema was linked with a move back to Europe during the January transfer window.
Arsenal’s evident need for a striker capable of scoring regularly led to speculation that the Gunners would make a bid, and Manchester United were said to be interested after an underwhelming first half of the Premier League season.
Madrid and another of Benzema’s former clubs, French side Lyon, were also mooted as potential destinations for the 36-year-old.
Benzema reportedly had a dressing-room row with former Al Ittihad manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who was sacked shortly after the purported incident and has since taken over at Nottingham Forest.
Saudi Arabian outlet Al Riyadiah, via AS, claimed Espirito Santo had accused Benzema of being lazy following a 2-0 AFC Champions League defeat to Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
Al Ittihad are fifth in the Pro League under Argentinean Gallardo, 22 points behind leaders Al Hilal.
The first leg of their tie against Navbahor is on Thursday, taking on opponents whose group-stage results included a 1-1 at Al Hilal.