With champions Al Nassr secured in Thursday’s final round as the pick of the 2018/19 Saudi Professional League’s field, the time has come to celebrate the season’s finest individual performers.
Stellar talent was dotted throughout the field after last summer’s generous injection of cash from the charitable General Sports Authority.
A collection of footballers was still able to shine greater than the rest. Here is Sport360’s top-five:
ABDERRAZAK HAMDALLAH (AL NASSR)
The best team in 2018/19, unquestionably, also boasted the division’s best player.
Hamdallah’s standing as one of Asian football’s greatest predators was reinforced with another flood of goals during a legendary debut season at Nassr. It was apt that his final-day brace in the 2-1 win against relegated Al Batin sealed the trophy, ahead of Riyadh rivals Al Hilal.
The bullish centre forward’s peerless tally of 34 strikes in 26 matches broke the all-time record for a single SPL campaign – held by Al Ittihad icon Hamzah Idris – that had stood for 19 years. This was also 13 more goals than joint-second-placed Leandre Tawamba of Al Taawoun and Al Hilal’s Bafetimbi Gomis, plus was more than four whole clubs managed (Ohod, Al Batin, Al Hazem and Al Fateh).
Remarkably, the 28-year-old only struck twice in his nine opening top-flight engagements. The floodgates then opened.
The breadth of Hamdallah’s talents is further emphasised by the fact he finished joint top of the assists charts, sitting on nine with club-mate and fellow Moroccan Nordin Amrabat.
LEANDRE TAWAMBA (AL TAAWOUN)
A left-field buy, whose lethality propelled Taawoun to the grandest campaign of their 63-year history.
Three goals in his first three fixtures would assuage doubts about the stocky centre forward. A burgeoning reputation would then be bolstered for eternity with a 90th-minute winner in this month’s King’s Cup showpiece triumph against recovering giants Al Ittihad.
Tawamba’s arrival in July from Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade had been greeted with, at best, apathy. A nomadic career to date for the now 29-year-old had contained unremarkable stints in five other countries, including his native Cameroon, South Africa, Slovakia, Libya and Kazakhstan.
Away from home soil, he’d never broken through the 20-goal barrier in a campaign. This was to dramatically change in Buraydah.
Holding onto him and inspirational coach Pedro Emanuel will be some task.
DANILO ASPRILLA (AL FAYHA)
One player can make the difference between survival and relegation.
For Fayha, that man was Asprilla. His 2018/19 tally of 15 strikes in 28 SPL run-outs was 12 more than any team-mate.
A rampant scoring spree of nine goals in his last seven games helped earn Fayha four, utterly crucial, wins and a draw. This saw them scrape outside the drop zone by a point in the deciding round.
The 30-year-old’s sinuous dribble through the Taawoun defence and low finish – for a goal-of-the-season contender – was also reminiscent of Diego Maradona.
The Colombian forward found a home at King Salman Sport City Stadium during two seasons on loan from the UAE’s Al Ain, going from erratic to inspired. Al Shabab have signed a phenom for 2019/20.
PETROS (AL NASSR)
A player who symbolised the revolution at Nassr.
The tireless Petros garnered few headlines when he was snapped up from Sao Paulo for €5 million last June. Especially when this capture was swiftly followed up by the procurement of Watford winger Amrabat, Leicester forward Ahmed Musa and Fenerbahce’s Giuliano.
What Nassr gained in the 29-year-old centre midfielder was a symbol. His ceaseless desire and unmatched work-rate gelled perfectly with the philosophies of coaches Jose Daniel Carreno and Rui Vitoria.
The Brazilian’s 85 tackles was the seventh best in the SPL and 18 more than nearest team-mate Sultan Al Ghanam.
SALEH AL SHEHRI (AL RAED)
Where did this performance come from?
Al Shehri had ticked along in Portugal, Al Ahli Jeddah and Raed prior to a 2018/19 that transformed all opinions about the forward. An unexpected 16 strikes in 25 SPL matches was 13 more than 2017/18’s previous career best.
Standout for the 25-year-old was a four-goal haul in March’s immensely satisfying and truly memorable 5-4 victory against former employer Ahli.
Raed’s various foreign attackers singularly failed to trouble the scorers. Their impressive eighth-place would not have been possible without Al Shehri’s step-up.
The long-term solution to Saudi Arabia’s desperation for a new No9 could have been found.
BEST XI (4-4-2)
Goalkeeper: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab)
Right-back: Sultan Al Ghanam (Al Nassr)
Centre-back: Manuel Da Costa (Al Ittihad)
Centre-back: Djamel Benlamri (Al Shabab)
Left-back: Yasser Al Shahrani (Al Hilal)
Right wing: Danilo Asprilla (Al Fayha)
Centre midfield: Petros (Al Nassr)
Centre midfield: Mohamed Kanno (Al Hilal)
Left wing: Saleh Al Shehri (Al Raed)
Striker: Leandre Tawamba (Al Taawoun)
Striker: Abderazzak Hamdallah (Al Nassr)
Day two the Ahdaaf Cup, powered by Nike, saw Santos soar to the top of Group E with a stunning 5-0 win over YNWA, while Marhoom Humaid Aref were also victorious with a convincing 5-2 victory over Panthers FC. There’s still plenty to play for as the league’s top two teams face each other on Friday night, in what’s set to be an absolute thriller.
Tonight sees the second matches for the men’s teams with Group A leaders Falcons taking on Lion, who are without any points having lost their opening fixture to Amazing Boy’s, 3-2. Looking to build on their narrow win, Amazing Boy’s will be up against Jumeira – who are looking to get their first points on the board.
Group B action sees league leaders Fiorentina Dubai, fresh off a 6-0 win against Tayseer, are taking on Angry Birds. The other fixture sees Zol’s United looking for their first points against Tayseer.
About the Ahdaaf Cup
Played on two Nike-branded pitches, in the Al Quoz industrial area, teams will compete against each other in a league table format before progressing onto the knockout stages of the competition. Matches are played in a five-a-side format with sides allowed to register seven players in the squad, who can be used in rotation during the game.
Teams are competing over nine days as they battle it out for the winner’s trophy.
There’s competition for both males and females as 24 men’s teams who will be looking to take home a share of the Dhs 30,000 grand prize. The Nike slogan for the tournament, which is emblazoned around the pitches, says ‘End it with speed, end it with precision’, which is exactly what the teams will have to do as matches are just 30 minutes in length.
When expectation meets reality, there’s usually a massive disparity.
Few other arenas has quite the failure in meeting expectations – good or bad – than football.
Case and point is with players. Ahead of every league season, proclamations are made about certain individuals as to whether they’ll be a success or failure.
Some either struggle to meet standards while others surpass them. With the domestic campaigns drawing to a close around Europe, we’re examining the player’s who under and over performed given their respective expectations heading into the 2018/19.
Today, we look at the five biggest underperformers from around Europe’s top-five leagues.
Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona
He’s ended it enduring the ignominy of having his every touch jeered and whistled by the Camp Nou.
When Coutinho departed Liverpool in January 2018, boss Jurgen Klopp offered a warning that at a club like Barcelona he would be “just another player”. It’s been worse than that, though, because the transfer fee has made him a prime target for vitriol.
He’s scored just 11 goals in 53 appearances across all competitions in 2018/19 and considering his strongest asset was versatility to operate in a front or middle three, it’s become a weakness with the 26-year-old an awkward fit for both roles.
David de Gea, Manchester United
Such has been United’s sharp decline this season any one of their strongest starting XI could feature.
But none even come close to how shocking De Gea’s drop off has been because the heights he’s reached.
Indeed, the Spaniard has slipped from strong consideration for being the world’s best goalkeeper, to not even the best in England.
Need evidence? He has made four errors leading to a goal in the Premier League this term – that’s more than in his previous five seasons combined.
It’s likely that he’s suffering mentally as opposed to any technical deficiencies – add in the fact the pile of hot mess in front of him has hardly helped either – but still, the 28-year-old has nosedived.
Gareth Bale, Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid and his departure was supposed to allow a Bale rebirth.
Instead, we’ve witnessed his Los Blancos career die in 2018/19.
In terms of talent and ability, Bale should be a superstar. But there’s something missing, mentally, physically; maybe even both? Whether his body won’t allow it, or his mind, the Welshman has shown this season he does not possess the build to replace a machine like Ronaldo.
Madridistas were understandably apprehensive at the thought of Bale being the star this season, not from a skillset perspective, but pure reliability.
They’ve been proved right. Eight goals in 29 La Liga appearances this season is appalling. He’s been left out of Zinedine Zidane’s recent matchday squads and with him turning 30 in July, Bale is a depreciated asset and one the club will struggle to offload.
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City
Sergio Aguero is 30-years-old and he is apart of a crew of City’s aging core which will need replacing in the near future. Pep Guardiola has already found David Silva (33) and Vincent Kompany’s (33) heirs through Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte respectively.
The Catalan boss will definitely sign a replacement for Fernandinho (34) in the summer, but what about Aguero?
Jesus was primed to take over City’s attack but this season he’s stagnated. Yes, injuries have been a mitigating factor but of his 29 Premier League appearances in 2018/19, a staggering 21 have come from the bench.
He’s looked dreadfully short of confidence, has lost his starting spot in the national team and was even beckoned by Guardiola to “fight to win his position”.
The 22-year-old is in a demanding development phase of his career, yet after a period of maturation and evolution last season, he’s regressed. Don’t be surprised if the Brazilian leaves in the summer.
Gonzalo Higuain, AC Milan and Chelsea
Two loan spells for Higuain this season and two relative disasters. The Argentine is one of the most elite finishers in world football, and at times he’s shown that. What is also very obvious, though, is that Higuain’s short of the fitness required for an elite club.
Watching him closely and all the mental traits remain, the instinct to find space, the intelligence to time his runs, but then his body just can’t seem to apply them quickly enough anymore.
He’s one of the highest-earning strikers in Europe and yet, in half a season for Chelsea, has scored just five goals with only one – versus 11th-placed Watford – against a side above 15th in the Premier League.
At Milan, Krzysztof Piatek took his place and practically transformed their season, providing more evidence of Higuain’s decline. He’s 32 later this year and now looks a spent force.