A pair of giants will be otherwise engaged this weekend when the Saudi Professional League kicks back into gear, but there is still plenty of intrigue to be found elsewhere.
Leaders Al Hilal and floundering Al Ahli Jeddah’s matches have been postponed because of Saturday’s semi-final, first-leg commitments in the Zayed Champions Cup.
This means second-placed Al Nassr could ramp up the pressure and close the gap at the top to just one point. Just like Al Ittihad at the other end of the table, however, they’ll need to rebound immediately after woeful 2019 AFC Champions League performances in midweek.
Here are the talking points for a – truncated – round 24:
TESTING NASSR’S NERVE
As warm-ups for a crucial weekend of domestic action go, Monday’s 3-2 defeat for Nassr against Iran’s Zob Ahan was not ideal – to put it mildly.
The continental competition has now twice punctured momentum built up during a six-match winning run in the SPL. These domestic results under ex-Benfica boss Rui Vitoria have come at a crucial time, as Riyadh rivals Hilal have not been able to race away despite their seamless transition from Jorge Jesus to Zoran Mamic.
Simple errors will worry Vitoria. All three goals conceded were scrappy, with the usual steel nerves of striker Abderrazak Hamdallah also deserting him when he could not convert a second penalty-kick of the night.
An invaluable opportunity now awaits them to ramp up the pressure on Hilal when they meet an Al Wehda who’ve won just one of their last four fixtures.
But if their belief betrays them once again, the title race could, effectively, be run by mid-March.
CASES FOR THE DEFENCE
A quartet of ACL matches for the Saudi contingent generated just one win for Hilal – in impressive fashion against Qatar’s Al Duhail – and three defeats.
Ittihad were the worst offenders, going down 4-1 at the UAE’s incurably inconsistent Al Wahda. This opening reversal in four games under the returned Jose Luis Sierra cannot be allowed to infect their SPL fortunes.
Last weekend, other results ensured even a fortifying 2-0 win against Al Fayha was not enough to escape the drop zone for the first time this term.
Unlike so often under the frustrating Slaven Bilic, however, the Tigers that day took the fight to fellow strugglers. A dominant 63-per-cent possession and 16 attempts on goal allowed their superior quality to, belatedly, show.
Key winter addition Aleksandar Prijovic broke his duck at the fifth attempt with a brace and Morocco centre-back Manuel Da Costa was a rock. Both have rested up after not being registered for Asia.
Al Hazem, only two spots higher in 12th, await on Saturday.
With the bottom two of Ohod and Fayha inactive, plus lowly Batin and Al Raed also meeting, serious ground could be made up. Ittihad cannot let this opportunity slip.
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.