Saudi Professional League: Al Ahli Jeddah seal swoop for Persepolis boss Branko Ivankovic

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Al Ahli Jeddah have announced a two-year deal for inspirational Persepolis coach Branko Ivankovic as they look to rebound from their dismal 2018/19 Saudi Professional League campaign.

Ivankovic, 65, had been locked in negotiations for several weeks with the King Abdullah Sports City-outfit. These talks proved tense as Egyptian heavyweights Al Ahly mounted their own charm offensive for the well-travelled tactician and his – now former – employers railed against reports about an exit.

The Croatian’s departure from Iran has ended a trophy laden four-year stint. This period included the last three Persian Gulf Pro League titles, the 2018/19 Hazfi Cup, a trio of Iranian Super Cups and narrow defeat in the 2018 AFC Champions League final to Japan’s Kashima Antlers.

Ahli crept into a distant fourth place under caretaker Yousef Anbar after a disruptive season that contained the firings of South American duo Pablo Guede and Jorge Fossati. Their next competitive fixtures come in August in the 2019 ACL’s round of 16 versus great rivals Al Hilal.

“Branko Ivankovic is the new manager of the first football team after signing a two-year contract,” they tweeted in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Al Bilad newspaper has also linked them with an ambitious move for DC United’s Luciano Acosta.

The diminutive Argentine playmaker has been previously linked to both Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United.

Refreshing Ahli’s seven-player foreign quota will be a pressing task for Ivankovic.

He does, however, boast extensive managerial experience to aid him in this task.

A 28-year career in the dugout is highlighted by leading Iran at World Cup 2006 and winning the 2010 Chinese Super League with Shandong Luneng.

Familiarity with the SPL is provided by 2011/12’s guiding of Ettifaq to an impressive fourth place.

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Al Hilal must retain Bafetimbi Gomis, but should Omar Abdulrahman be kept for 2019/20?

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A season that promised bountiful success for Al Hilal ended on a distinct sour note.

Late concession of their Saudi Professional League crown to bitter Riyadh rivals Al Nassr – by one point – and a historic 5-0 semi-final defeat to upstarts Al Taawoun in the King’s Cup shone an uncomfortable light on a lavishly assembled squad.

Major decisions lay ahead for Hilal’s board about the way forward – especially regarding their foreign department. With no announcement made public about the size of the non-Saudi quota for 2019/20, we’ve judged each player on their individual merits.

This is who Sport360 thinks the Crescent should keep, and who they should let go:

KEEP

Bafetimbi Gomis’ memorable ‘Panther Walk’ celebration became a surprisingly rare sight towards the back end of 2018/19.

Hilal must now do everything in their power to get the ex-France centre forward back to his best.

A tally of 12 goals in his opening 14 top-flight matches after a €6 million switch from Galatasaray, seemingly, signalled a revelatory campaign. But four strikes in the final nine fixtures hampered Hilal’s title aspirations.

Summer offers will likely come from Turkey. They must be rejected.

Hilal only saw glimmers of vaunted winter arrival Sebastian Giovinco.

The thought is an alluring one of the Italy creator starting 2019/20 injury free and with a full pre-season in his legs.

The, reportedly, highest-paid player in SPL history got four goals and one assist in 10 top-flight run-outs. This return was also curtailed by a regular positioning out wide to make space for others.

Hilal should now engineer their squad to get the optimum out of the ex-Juventus star. Replication of his startling debut against Al Qadsiah, a 4-1 victory electrified by link-up play with Gomis, is a necessity.

Another winter purchase of which more can be expected next term is Australia centre-back Milos Degenek.

The rigours of the Asian Cup and preceding UEFA Champions League commitments with Red Star Belgrade contributed to an ongoing groin problem. But at 25-years old, the best is yet to come.

Rounding out this trio of mid-season arrivals is Jonathan Soriano.

The Spaniard also struggled with fitness, yet an average of an SPL goal every 55.7 minutes for Gomis’ experienced understudy means he deserves retention.

Then comes the trickier question of what to do with UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.

Flashes of brilliance from the curly haired protagonist and 2016 AFC Player of the Year were witnessed before October’s devastating knee injury.

Not enough to justify a reputed Dh60 million annual wage packet. But a reduction in terms for the boyhood Hilal fan could see him stick around and bid to prove himself across a longer period.

LET GO

Bidding farewell to a club icon is never easy.

The time, however, has arrived for Carlos Eduardo. Enervating injury problems robbed the Brazilian centre midfielder in 2018/19 of the ceaseless drive that once made him a cut above.

Rampant rumour points to a painful – but smart – summer departure to the Arabian Gulf League for the man with six major trophies, plus 42 goals in 74 SPL run-outs. This would represent a path trodden by lionised countryman and predecessor Thiago Neves.

Hilal knew when to cut their losses in 2015. History must repeat itself.

Meanwhile, Andre Carrillo has found himself at the centre of a proxy transfer war between Hilal and Nassr.

The 27-year-old’s situation mirrors the confusion at the core of the former’s, ultimately, unsatisfactory campaign.

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Mid-season inactivity under the maligned Zoran Mamic meant an appearance clause to make a loan deal from Benfica permanent could not be triggered, leading to predatory advances from Nassr and Rui Vitoria – his former boss at Estadio da Luz.

But should Hilal vacate the stage?

The Peru winger’s return of three goals and six assists in 21 SPL run-outs is modest when compared to a likely €17 million+ investment.

This figure also rises all the time as Nassr push to get involved. But is their intention just to land him whatever the cost, or mischievously ensure – like with Omar Abdulrahman – their neighbours pay through the nose for a middling wide man?

Meanwhile, Hilal’s resident Spanish centre-back should expect bad news.

Alberto Botia has proven an adequate addition – 99 clearances from 26 appearances is decent going.

This, however, is not enough to meet Hilal’s exacting domestic and continental ambitions.

Degenek’s failure to truly shine can, largely, be attributed to a shuffling into centre midfield to cover a succession of key injuries. Sell Botia, the man he replaced in the 2019 AFC Champions League reckoning, and this area can be bolstered.

Saudi’s opening World Cup 2018 goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf cannot be trusted. But neither can aged Oman veteran Ali Al Habsi, whose horror show in the second derby of the season against Nassr proved so consequential.

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Breaking down Al Nassr charge to Saudi Professional League success

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(Twitter/@AlNassrFC_EN).

In the end, Riyadh and the Saudi Professional League were painted vibrant yellow.

Al Nassr belied four years of institutional tumult and underachievement to pip neighbours Al Hilal to the 2018/19 crown. After 30 engaging rounds, only one point separated the capital rivals.

But how did Al A’alamy – The Global, a nickname which was acquired in 2000 after becoming the first Saudi side to feature in the Club World Cup – make such a quantum leap? Here, Sport360 runs down five of the major factors – with help from SofaScore.com.

HAMDALLAH THE HERO

Football is a team sport, but – to paraphrase George Orwell – some footballers do far more than others.

The €6 million paid to Al Rayyan last August for centre forward Abderazzak Hamdallah represents one of the smartest decisions in the Saudi game’s history.

Goals were expected from someone who had netted with abandon in his native Morocco, Norway, China and Qatar. But the 28-year-old did better than merely meet expectations; he shattered them.

The committed centre forward’s unmatched tally of 34 strikes in 26 matches broke the all-time record for a single SPL campaign – held by Al Ittihad icon Hamzah Idris. It had stood for 19 years.

This figure was a colossal 13 greater than Hilal’s celebrated ex-France marksman Bafetimbi Gomis and Al Taawoun’s Cameroon sensation Leandre Tawamba.

Saudi Arabia persona non grata Mohammad Al Sahlawi netted just 10 times when the club limped home a distant third in 2017/18.

Furthermore, Hamdallah’s nine assists set the division’s benchmark along with club and country colleague Nordin Amrabat. In total, he accounted for 29.7 per cent of Nasr’s goals for the SPL season.

Remarkably, only two efforts came in his first nine top-flight fixtures.

December 8’s critical equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Hilal would then spark a staggering run – for club and player – of 32 in 18.

Responsibility down the stretch was not shirked. His final five matches contained two hat-tricks and three braces, the last of which in Thursday’s 2-1 triumph against relegated Al Batin sealed a first SPL title since 2014/15.

Hamdallah’s influence was vast, even beyond the score sheet.

Humble and understated off the pitch, bullish and with the gait of a light-heavyweight boxer when on it. He is, truly, a striker of rare renown.

BETTER IN ALL RESPECTS

A frustrating and perplexing few seasons for the Nassr faithful have met a glorious end.

The King Fahd Stadium-outfit had, frankly, been a shambles for far too long.

Jorge Da Silva was ungratefully dismissed in the October after 2014/15’s title triumph. A further seven coaches were chewed up and spat out on the way to 2017/18’s third-placed result, 12 points off champions Hilal.

Mountains of debt, accrued through a reckless transfer churn, had also seen a licence denied for the 2018 AFC Champions league.

Then came last summer’s paradigm-shifting, overnight $340m infusion of cash into the SPL from the General Sports Authority, Saudi Arabia Football Federation and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Nassr spent big and, largely, spent wisely.

Tenacious Brazilian midfielder Petros became of a symbol of Nassr’s new values. For a €5m investment from Sao Paulo, 85 tackles were added – the SPL’s seventh most.

Right-back Sultan Al-Ghannam cost €1.4m from Al Faisaly. His five assists was the second-most for any SPL defender.

Feyenoord goalkeeper Brad Jones was a steadying influence, while Fenerbahce creator Giuliano notched eight goals and five assists in 30 SPL matches.

Galatasaray loanee Maicon added gravitas at the back, in the wake of his mid-season arrival.

The travails of Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa – for whom Leicester City’s £14.5m fee witnessed a return of just seven goals in 24 SPL run-outs – would have sunk them in other seasons. This time, one malfunctioning part could not destabilise the whole.

IN SAFE HANDS

Last summer’s doubling of the foreign quota to eight had a profound impact on the SPL’s goalkeeping ranks.

Long-term Australia back-up Jones was one of a flood of non-Saudi shot stoppers snapped up.

His purchase from then Eredivisie champions Feyenoord was astute. Behind the division’s meanest defence, a joint-high 11 clean sheets came from 25 SPL matches.

The ex-Liverpool No2 was well protected by Nassr. He only had to make the 13th most saves (49) and conceded the 15th most goals from inside his penalty box (18).

But he was also proactive, making the division’s joint-third most run-outs (nine) and high claims (14).

Last term’s No1 Waleed Abdullah ranked 17th and ninth, respectively.

THE BIG MOMENTS

There was precious little to separate competing heavyweights who splashed more than €40m each last summer.

The destination of the 2018/19 trophy would, then, be decided in a few decisive moments. In the double header against Hilal, an iron will would ensure they all went Nassr’s way.

None held greater significance than Brazil centre-back Bruno Uvini’s 97th-minute header on March 29 that looped over Oman icon Ali Al Habsi and secured an epic 3-2 victory.

This goal both increased a tailspin for the sorry Zoran Mamic with the Crescent, plus sent Nassr into the lead.

December’s opening bout would also be packed with drama.

At a tinderbox King Saud University Stadium, Nassr walked out under the control of Portuguese caretaker Helder Cristovao – in place since November’s capricious call to dump Jose Daniel Carreno – and found themselves 2-0 down by 18 minutes. Lesser sides would have crumpled, especially with the pressure of a potential six-point deficit mounting.

Instead, athletic headers from Brazil playmaker Giuliano and Hamdallah in five indefatigable second-half minutes spelled out this squad’s desire.

Nassr’s form down the final straight under ex-Benfica tactician Rui Vitoria was almost flawless. They dropped only three points from their final 36.

Hilal, alone, in their last eight run-outs slipped up four times. This month’s 2-0 consequential defeat against Al Taawoun handed Nassr a lifeline after they slipped up against improving Al Ittihad.

Other standouts for The Global in this decisive period included three unanswered goals from the 70-minute mark to prevail 3-2 at Ettifaq, plus Hamdallah’s gritty first-half penalty to grind out a 1-0 win against relegation-threatened Al Fayha.

STRIKING IT RICH WITH RUI

It was an enormous gamble – but one that Nassr’s trophy cabinet now proves was worth taking.

November’s decision to dismiss Carreno seemed, at best, reckless at the time. From nine SPL matches at the helm, an average of 2.44 points per game had been registered.

Caretaker Cristovao did a sterling job, until unforeseen opportunity arose. Within a week of Benfica’s ruthless culling of Vitoria in January after six trophies in four years, he was at the King Fahd.

Vitoria’s dogged, disciplined approach gelled perfectly with workmanlike talents like Petros, Amrabat and Hamdallah in the second half of 2018/19. His system also provided space for the likes of Giuliano and overlapping Al Ghannam to excel.

The contrast in succession management to Hilal was stark – and telling. The Crescent soon imploded once fellow Portuguese Jorge Jesus would not commit to a second season in January and the unfortunate Mamic came in.

Nassr, however, blossomed under Vitoria’s care.

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