Battle recommences in the Saudi Professional League on Tuesday with a pair of intriguing matches.
Leaders Al Hilal will be without suspended Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo, but could welcome Italy pocket rocket Sebastian Giovinco, for the visit of mid-table Al Qadsiah to King Saud University Stadium. In the night’s other matches, the Jorge Fossati-era starts at Al Ahli Jeddah when they welcome another Riyadh powerhouse, Al Nassr.
Elsewhere in this round, fallen giants Al Ittihad’s clumsy attempts to escape the relegation zone continue on Friday at Al Raed.
Here are the major talking points:
NO KING CARLOS
It’s been an entertaining introduction to life at Hilal from coach Zoran Mamic.
The 48-year-old has repaid the decision to poach him from Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain with a flood of goals. Ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis’ injury-time follow up at Al Batin earned a rollercoaster 3-2 win at Al Batin, extending a 100-per-cent record across three matches at a combined score of 12-4.
Mamic has loosened the leashes strapped on by the masterful Jorge Jesus, urging full-backs to bomb forwards and granting Hilal’s all-time top foreign goal scorer, Eduardo, the freedom of the park.
But this game plan will, reportedly, need to be tweaked for the next three domestic fixtures after the 29-year-old’s inexplicable jumping stamp in the final throes on Friday.
Hilal, however, are blessed with options for the pivotal No10 role.
Winter addition Giovinco has begun training after he arrived injured from Major League Soccer. His low centre of gravity and extravagant skills would provide a flamboyant alternative to the powerful Eduardo, if match fit.
Explode into life against sinking opponents who’ve lost five of their last six matches and extra pressure will be exerted on Mamic ahead of the decision to select his four foreigners for the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Other options include Salem Al Dawsari, who sporadically played a central role for Saudi Arabia at Asian Cup 2019, to middling effect. He’s also back in the fold.
WILL FOSSATI’S FACE FIT?
The capricious SPL churns through coaches like few other competitions across the globe.
Pablo Guede’s reward for winning four-successive top-flight matches at Ahli was a summary firing after just seven months in charge, with Gulf veteran Fossati being drafted in so quickly that there was barely time for a desk to be cleared.
To unpick this decision, you must start from the back.
Ahli have conceded the most goals in the top six (26). December’s 4-3 loss at Hilal and October’s shameful 6-2 surrender at Ettifaq signpost their helter-skelter nature under Guede.
This is where Fossati and his – virtually – ever-present 3-4-2-1 formation comes into play.
If you can tighten up the defence without impeding 13-goal marksmen Omar Al Somah and Djaniny, then a 10-point gap to the leaders could soon close.
Fossati has had less than a week on the training pitch to instill his principles. An early acid test awaits against Nassr.
SLAVEN’S STILL SEARCHING
We are more than five months into Slaven Bilic’s reign at Al Ittihad – and still the eight-time champions are no closer to extracting themselves from the relegation zone.
Saturday’s stalemate at Al Taawoun saw five winter additions feature. Chances and points, however remained at a premium.
Midfielder Abdullah Al Bishi shone at the Asian Cup, but was hooked on the hour mark. Fahad Al Muwallad and Aleksandar Prijovic shared harmless headers.
Bilic arrived in Saudi Arabia with a battered reputation after a mixed few seasons at West Ham United. A search for redemption has, thus far, been forlorn.
Al Raed are in even worse form, losing their last four games in all competitions.
Ittihad must make this five to avert the very real danger of sleepwalking into Prince Mohammad bin Salman League.
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