Talent runs deep in the 2018/19 Saudi Professional League.
Increased investment in the Kingdom’s top flight has grabbed headlines through the acquisitions of lauded foreigners like Galatasaray striker Bafetimbi Gomis, Toronto FC playmaker Sebastian Giovinco and Leicester City’s Ahmed Musa. But this weekend’s rise of unheralded Al Taawoun striker Leandre Tawamba to the top of the scoring, points to the breadth of quality the division currently boasts.
Below, we’ve gone beyond the usual names to highlight the other non-Saudis that are excelling this term:
Club: Al Fayha (loan)
2018/19 SPL record: Six appearances, eight goal conceded
International record: 143 caps for Jordan, one goal scored
Key statistic: Under Fayha’s previous No1, Cristian Bonilla, they conceded an average of 1.9 goals per top-flight game. This number has dropped to 1.3 with Shafi.
From the moment that the Saudi sporting authorities allowed the use of non-native shot stoppers in summer 2017, 37-yer-old Shafi became an obvious target.
The only surprise was that the move took until after his heroics at this January’s Asian Cup to take place. Jordan conceded just once in four games with him between the sticks.
Club: Al Hilal
2018/19 SPL record: Six appearances, zero goals scored
International record: 25 caps for Australia, one goal scored
Key statistic: Degenek’s average of 2.9 tackles per SPL game is comfortably the best in the Hilal squad, ahead of energetic Saudi Arabia full-back Yasser Al Shahrani’s 2.7.
Hilal’s horizons spread far beyond the Kingdom.
A determination to end their 19-year wait for glory in the AFC Champions League glory saw Hilal settle on Degenek, 24, as the best-available Asian-qualified centre-back on the winter market. The €3.6 million paid to Red Star Belgrade for the Socceroo has got them a fierce competitor.
Position: Centre midfield
Club: Al Hilal
2018/19 SPL record: 20 appearances, nine goals scored
International record: N/A
Key statistic: Eduardo’s 64 goals for Hilal makes him the club’s leading foreign scorer of all time, ahead of fellow Brazilian Thiago Neves (59).
In a club famed for its procurement of exciting foreigners, the Brazilian centre midfielder has made a lasting impact at Hilal like few others.
No non-Saudi in the modern era has made more appearances or scored more times for Hilal than him. Plus, an untimely knee injury in the first leg was a major contributor to defeat against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in November 2017’s ACL showpiece.
OMAR AL SOMAH
Position: Centre forward
Club: Al Ahli Jeddah
2018/19 SPL record: 20 appearances, 16 goals scored
International record: 20 caps for Syria, eight goals scored
Key statistic: Al Somah’s towering back-post header to secure Friday’s 2-1 win at Al Qadsiah saw him move onto a landmark 100 goals in 102 SPL run-outs.
When it comes to deciding the identity of Asia’s greatest striker, 29-year-old Al Somah is in a class of his own.
The three-time SPL leading marksman’s brilliance is found in the range of goals produced. From thunderous free-kicks, hanging headers to this month’s sublime scissor kick in the derby with Al Ittihad that went viral across the globe, it is easy to see why comparisons are drawn to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Position: Centre forward
Club: Al Taawoun
2018/19 SPL record: 22 appearances, 18 goals scored
International record: Two caps for Cameroon, zero goals scored
Key statistic: Among players with 10 or more SPL strikes this season, only Al Nassr’s Abderrazak Hamdallah (nine) has missed more big chances than Tawamba’s eight.
For all last summer’s glamour signings, a surprise name currently tops the SPL scoring charts.
The partnership up top between the hulking Tawamba, 29, and dead-eyed Abdulfattah Mohamed Adam defines Taawoun’s excellent campaign. A combined tally of 29 goals has provided the bedrock for their rise into fourth place.
Statistics provided by SofaScore.com
Clubs in contrasting mood meet at Al Nahyan Stadium on Monday when the UAE’s Al Wahda host resurgent Saudi Arabians Al Ittihad in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
The visitors have been rejuvenated by last month’s decision to ditch ex-West Ham United boss Slaven Bilic and rehire Jose Luis Sierra. A three-match unbeaten run has lifted them out of the direct drop zone in the Saudi Professional League, plus humiliate Qatar’s Al Rayyan with a 5-1 humbling when Group B got under way in the continental event.
In contrast, the Clarets’ mixed recent results continued with last week’s 2-0 defeat at Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Here are the talking points:
TESTING THE SIERRA EFFECT
Sierra’s swiftness in lifting the cloud that hung over Ittihad has been startling.
The man cast aside last summer – in spite of two trophies in two seasons in charge – had watched from afar as one of the Kingdom’s grandees careered towards a first relegation in 92 years of existence.
His gift has been to impart positivity amid a nightmare period. Be it through adding an unforeseen attacking edge to Bilic’s 4-2-3-1 formation, or finally getting winter buy Aleksandar Prijovic – not present in the UAE – to break his drought with a brace in Friday’s energising 2-0 victory against Al Feyha.
Now comes another test. Is this spell just the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, or something else entirely?
WHICH WAHDA WILL WE SEE?
Wahda’s recent run tells you everything about their miserable 2018/19.
A six-match streak of alternative wins and losses stretches back to February 5’s 4-2 win at promoted Ittihad Kalba in the Arabian Gulf League. Their distant fifth place is utterly justified.
Most recently, they were well beaten by Lokomotiv. Any realistic hope of earning a return to the knockouts for the first time since 2007 could be dealt a mortal blow by Ittihad.
STICK WITH THE SAUDIS
Sierra sprung a surprise last Monday, starting just one of his struggling foreign quartet – Brazilian forward Romarinho – upon the end of Ittihad’s three-year exile from the ACL.
The outcome was emphatic.
January addition Abdulaziz Al Bishi, plus squad men like Abdulaziz Al Aryani and Ziyad Al Sahafi, will hope for more of the same.
With SPL survival the overriding priority, Sierra should stick with these figures at Wahda.
Ittihad football delegation off to Abu Dhabi at dawn pic.twitter.com/6NAUwY5ppz— Ittihad Club (@ittihad_en) March 8, 2019
UAE sports leader, Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, promised to clean up and unlock the potential of the world’s biggest football continent as he launched his campaign bid to become President of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
In a powerful ceremony at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on March 7, the candidate pledged to “make significant levels of new investment for every Member Association, increase participation at all levels of the game” and introduce genuine “transparency and independence”.
Al Romaithi’s bold election campaign manifesto for change, ‘Making Football Fair,’ was unveiled at the Louvre launch, heralding Asia’s first contemporary continental blueprint for football development.
Al Romaithi is adamant that now is the time to throw off years of inadequate investment and poor governance, which has stalled the development of the world’s most popular game in the world’s biggest football continent.
In a move not seen before, Al Romaithi, who is the chairman of the General Authority for Sports in the UAE, unveiled a comprehensive, fully-funded manifesto designed to make football fair for all in Asia, and more competitive internationally.
Under Al Romaithi’s leadership the AFC would become the most “inclusive and independent” football confederation in the world.
“I have seen first-hand how the power of football can change the lives of everyone for the better, but in Asia this power has been abused to the detriment of our people,” Al Romaithi said.
“Now is the time for change, now is the time for a new era, now is the time to make football fair for all,” he said.
Football is failing in Asia: We deserve better
Among a raft of initiatives, Al Romaithi, who was vice president of the Local Organising Committee for the recent 2019 AFC Asian Cup, pledged:
The Al Romaithi manifesto is designed to “bring Asian football into the 21st century,” and is the first contemporary strategic plan devised to develop football in Asia.
The ‘Making Football Fair’ manifesto empowers member associations with the means to do what has never been done before: win the FIFA World Cup for Asia.
“I want every boy and girl from every nation, from every faith and of every age to have the chance to play football and dream of one day lifting the World Cup,” Al Romaithi said.
Building a football future based on investment and independence
For the first time, 25 per cent of each Member Association’s annual investment from the AFC will be ring-fenced for the development of women’s football. This, along with promises to expand the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, establish an AFC Women’s Champions League and introduce annual AFC youth competitions, highlights Al Romaithi’s commitment to growing the game for all.
“We need to modernise our failing football system and create more opportunities to play the beautiful game,” said the man who represented Al Ain, the UAE’s most decorated football club, at youth level.
“All member associations need to give youth a fair chance with more opportunities to play, learn and progress – unlocking their full potential.”
Al Romaithi is committed to delivering more competitive football for every age group. He will reinstate U13 eight-a-side regional festivals for boys and girls, and he will ensure all U14-U23 teams have the opportunity to play regular international fixtures every year.
“These are the catalysts our national teams need,” Al Romaithi said. “More international football at a young age will encourage the development of our best players and allow us to be truly competitive with our European, North and South American and African counterparts.”
Ensuring financial fair play for all
From becoming chairman of his beloved Al Ain FC to serving as an AFC Executive Committee member, Al Romaithi has spent the past 20 years at the heart of the Asian sports community and understands every level of football governance.
If elected, Al Romaithi will establish five regional AFC development offices, publish detailed annual financial reports and create an independent office of budgetary responsibility.
“The AFC stands under a dark cloud, one shrouded in politics and poor governance,” Al Romaithi said. “My manifesto is underpinned by my values, values that have been instilled in me through a lifetime of service to my country and my continent.
“Integrity, transparency, fairness and respect are the fundamental principles by which I live my life and they will become the bedrock of my presidency.”
Under Al Romaithi’s leadership the AFC will become a confederation that decides issues for itself and achieves fair representation on the world stage.
“I am committed to increasing the number of quota places available for Asian teams at all FIFA competitions and ensure extra funding from FIFA is made available for all Member Associations,” he promised.
Al Romaithi will begin a three-week tour of Asia sharing and discussing his manifesto for reform with football and sporting leaders across the region leading up to the AFC Session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 6.
“Football gives hope for a better world,” Al Romaithi said. “That is why I want to create a confederation that is based on excellence and that is fair and equal for all.
“To prepare for that future we must begin today.”