A returning face has added fresh intrigue to Friday’s Jeddah derby that highlights the Saudi Professional League’s round 22.
Fallen giant Al Ittihad’s enduring relegation battle and an imminent scrap with city rivals Al Ahli saw perturbed management make the tough decision to end Slaven Bilic’s failed six-month reign on Sunday, then turn back towards Jose Luis Sierra.
Elsewhere, Nigeria hero Ahmed Musa is pushing for a first start of 2019 with Al Nassr and Al Hilal’s balancing act between continental and domestic aspirations is about to begin in earnest.
JEDDAH’S SHIFTING BALANCE OF POWER?
Rewind a month ago and Ahli were on the ascent under Pablo Guede, while ex-West Ham boss Bilic’s Ittihad looked to be turning a corner with two wins out of three top-flight games.
The managerial scene in Saudi’s second city, however, has been utterly transformed since then.
An astounding call at the start of this month to ditch Guede for fellow South American Jorge Fossati has only sparked successive domestic defeats to Nassr and Al Fateh, plus a drop to fifth.
For the Tigers, a 2-0 loss to holders Hilal last Thursday sealed Bilic’s demise. He departs having not once extracted big spenders from the bottom two.
Smiling faces greeted 2017 Saudi Crown Prince Cup and 2018 King Cup winner Sierra on Tuesday after he’d inked a deal, initially, until the end of a torturous 2018/19. The Chilean departed in the summer, then was dismissed in October by the UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club after three unimpressive months.
An immediate task is to inspire €10 million winter addition Aleksandar Prijovic to end his drought at the fourth time of asking, while also making fellow Chilean Carlos Villanueva Ittihad’s creative heartbeat once again. The 33-year-old playmaker averaged an assist every 2.2 SPL games under Sierra, while this rate sits at 9.5-per-game without him.
Sierra’s record in the SPL versus Ahli is nothing to shout about – two draws and two three-goal defeats. But his mere presence against opposition struggling with Fossati’s imposed three-man defence may spark a victory to gain local pride, plus ease worries of their humiliating first demotion.
MUSA HITS RESET BUTTON
Thousands of ecstatic Nassr supporters greeted €16.5m striker Musa at King Khalid International Airport upon arrival in August.
Similar fanfare did not greet his return to first-team action as a late substitute in Saturday’s 1-0 win against Al Fayha.
A combination of injury, family bereavement, fallings out with management and a run of one goal in his last 10 SPL fixtures created such ambivalence.
Yet, Nassr fans should not forget they possess a forward with four World Cup goals. If he can get on a wavelength with the unstoppable Abderrazak Hamdallah, Hilal could yet be reeled in – beginning with Thursday’s meeting with defensively sound Riyadh neighbours Al Shabab.
MAMIC’S MAJOR TEST
Serene success has been enjoyed by Zoran Mamic since he, shockingly, replaced the esteemed Jorge Jesus at the end of January at Hilal.
Before Monday’s 0-0 draw with Al Ittihad Alexandria that still earned progression to the Zayed Champions Cup semi-finals, four triumphs to a combined score of 16-4 had been registered.
The ex-Croatia defenders squad-management skills will now either come to the fore, or be exposed, when the 2019 AFC Champions League begins.
Hilal have gone on an unprecedented spending spree to end a 19-year ACL drought. This target could become all consuming.
Friday’s top-flight hosting of mid-table Al Faisaly is followed by Tuesday’s charged first continental group game, back at recent employers Al Ain of the UAE.
A six-point lead over second-placed Nassr could soon evaporate if Mamic cannot multitask.
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