SPL

Celtic can become home for well-travelled Elhamed

 • by Tom Bodell
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Neil Lennon’s headache is beginning to ease.

The Celtic boss looks to have won the tug-of-war with Arsenal over talisman Kieran Tierney and his lengthy right-back search is drawing to a close after a £1.6million fee was agreed with Hapoel Be’er Sheva for Hatem Abd Elhamed.

A right-back, while unglamorous, has been top of Lennon’s priorities for some time. The long-serving Mikael Lustig departed for Gent at the end of last season while German Under-21 international Jeremy Toljan returned to Borussia Dortmund following the conclusion of his loan spell. The clear-out was complete with Cristian Gamboa also departing at the end of his deal.

Attempts to replace the trio have been wide-ranging but, ultimately, unsuccessful. Luton Town’s Jack Stacey was a target but opted to join Premier League outfit Bournemouth. As was Huddersfield Town captain Tommy Smith who signed for Stoke City.

Arsenal flop Carl Jenkinson has been linked, as has Danny Simpson – a title winner with Leicester City – and Sheffield United‘s George Baldock. But it appears as though Elhamed is the player the Bhoys have settled on with his club wishing the defender well.

The only obstacle now remains a work permit. With only a single cap for Israel, ironically won when replacing current Hoop Nir Bitton in a Euro 2020 qualifier against Poland earlier this year, Elhamed does not meet the required threshold.

However, Isreal head coach Andreas Herzog and sports director Willi Rotensteiner have written to the Scottish Football Association to assure them Elhamed will be a big part of their plans.

Assuming that hurdle is overcome, Elhamed will become a Celtic player. Compared to other obstacles the 28-year-old has faced, this should be nothing, though.

Hatem Abd Elhamed's 2018/19 stats for Hapoel Be'Er Sheva

Eleven years ago, Elhamed’s younger brother, Muhammed, then 15, was tragically killed in a road accident. “My brother died in my arms. The death ruined my family and my father never managed to recover,” Elhamed said in an interview last year.

“Every day I play football, I dedicate it to him. My father wanted nothing in life but to see Muhammad play football. I didn’t start playing football until I was 16 – I didn’t start when I was eight years old, like others.

“I carry the financial responsibility of the whole family now. I cannot afford not to succeed in football. My brother’s death shaped my character and my success prevented the family from being crushed.”

Elhamed has certainly achieved that. A well-travelled career which saw him start out in his homeland with Bnei Sakhnin and Maccabi Tel-Aviv has taken him via Belgium (Charleroi and Gent) and Romania (FC Dinamo București) back to Israel with FC Ashdod (three times) and now Hapoel.

The 6ft 1ins defender spent much of last season at centre-back but he is every bit as comfortable on the right-hand side of defence and that is where he is expected to be deployed at Parkhead.

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Given his size and strength, it’s no surprise to learn Elhamed is a difficult man to get through. He won 68 per cent of the 6.87 defensive duels he was involved in Ligat Ha’Al last term. Broken down further, he managed 5.76 interceptions and 1.48 tackles per 90.

What’s immediately apparent when watching Elhamed is his ability when defending one-on-one. Calm, composed and a fine reader of the game, he is rarely caught out and beaten even more infrequently. Throw a surprising amount of pace into the mix and he is a strong all-round defender ready-made for the Scottish Premiership.

Once on the ball, his distribution is impressive too. Boasting a 91.08 pass completion percentage across an average of 45.99 passes per 90, Elhamed is progressive in his use of possession, making 18.43 forward passes per 90 with an accuracy of 85.35 per cent.

Perhaps the one area with room for improvement is carrying the ball forward. With just 1.84 attempted dribbles per 90, and only 1.05 resulting in a successful take-on, Elhamed is unlikely to be found steaming down the flank.

However, those figures are somewhat distorted by the number of minutes he played at centre-back last season. Taking only his appearances at full-back, the average shoots up to 4.3 attempts with a 50 per cent success rate. Deployed at No.2 more regularly, it’s not unreasonable to assume his proficiency in carrying possession will improve.

Similarly, it’s hard to judge Elhamed’s crossing ability when examining his figures for the entire season into account. Across the entire campaign, he averaged just 0.75 attempted deliveries per 90. However, taking his five outings at right-back in insolation that number leaps up to 3.1 with 0.95 finding a Hapoel player – a far more encouraging measure.

Undoubtedly there is an element of risk associated with the move. How the Israeli top flight compares to the Scottish Premiership is anyone’s guess, but if Hapoel coach Barak Bakhar is any barometer, the Bhoys have bagged a bargain.

“We are delighted for Hatem and are happy for our club because of the transfer fee,” said Bakhar. “It is not every day that a player from Be’er Sheva makes such a big transfer to a huge club like Celtic.

“However, in terms of our squad, this is a massive loss and it will be very difficult to get along without him, but that’s football.”

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