Benji on way back to Hibs as JC decides against deal

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HIBS striker Abdessalam Benjelloun was today poised for a return to Easter Road after his loan deal with Belgian club Royal Charleroi came to an end.

The 23-year-old made the temporary switch to Belgium at the beginning of the season after falling out of boss Mixu Paatelainen's plans. But despite scoring on his debut, Benji largely failed to impress as he endured a difficult time with injury.

Even the surprise appointment of John Collins as boss of Charleroi didn't revive the Moroccan's fortunes and he was left behind when the former Hibs boss took his new squad to a training camp in Turkey last week.

Charleroi had until yesterday to exercise an option to extend Benji's stay in Belgium but failed to do so.

However, Al Shaab in the United Arab Emirates have expressed an interest in signing a player who still has 18 months remaining on his contract with Hibs, with chairman Ibrahim Bahouir keen to see him team up with countryman Merouane Zemmama, who is on a season-long loan with the Middle Eastern outfit.

Bahouir said: "Al Shaab has reached agreement in principle with Abdessalam Benjelloun. No contract has yet been signed between the two parties but we have a desire to conclude this deal."

Al Shaab, of course, would have to strike a deal with Hibs either to take Benji on loan or on a permanent basis and, although the Evening News understands there has been contact between them and Hibs, no such agreement has been reached.

The fact Benji was, in effect, a Charleroi player until yesterday left Hibs unable to open negotiations with any other club until the Belgian club's stance was known. It remains to be seen if Bahouir will, in fact, press home his interest in Benji but, until that happens, Paatelainen today revealed he expects the player to report to the Hibs Training Centre on Monday to rejoin his squad.

The Finn has insisted a highly personal attack in which Benji described his tactics as being "40 years out of date" will be forgotten on the player's return.

He said: "There's some interest but no deals have been concluded. If there's an option for him and the club feel it is right for us and him then we'll see what happens.

"If he comes back here then great, we have another quality striker in the squad. I am expecting to see him back here on Monday morning unless something happens before then."

Paatelainen will also see Geordie striker Damon Gray back at Easter Road after his loan spell with First Division Partick Thistle came to an end without the Jags seeking to extend his stay at Firhill.

Meanwhile, Paatelainen today insisted his side can sweep arch-rivals Hearts out of the Homecoming Scottish Cup tomorrow – if they can get their passing game together.

The Hibs boss admitted he was disappointed at the poor quality of his players' passing during the scoreless draw between the teams at Tynecastle last weekend but believes an improvement can more than compensate for what he admits is a more physically robust Gorgie outfit.

He said: "Hearts are a big, physical side as Motherwell found on Wednesday night. They are big in size and strong in one-on-one situations but I feel we can cause problems with our passing when it is up to the standard we require."

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