A delicately balanced Riyadh rivalry, deep reservoir of talent, new faces and fervent fans will come to the fore this Thursday when the Middle East’s grandest football competition – the Saudi Professional League – restarts.
Consolidation, rather than rapid growth, was the order throughout a summer that contained few of 2018’s emphatic transfer splashes. This means, however, that supporters in the Kingdom can surely relish another tense battle between ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis’ Al Hilal and eventual champions Al Nassr – fuelled by history making Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah – during the next nine months.
Grander shake-ups have occurred at fellow giants Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Ittihad as they seek improved fortunes. Refreshing unfamiliarity also defines a promoted trio that includes debutants Al Adalah, plus Damac and Prince Mohammad bin Salman League champions Abha who are back following lengthy stints away.
Here is how things are shaping up for 2019/20:
2018/19 position: 1st
Coach: Rui Vitoria
Major ins: Saleh Al Abbas ($1.3m, Najran), Abdulfattah Adam ($6.7 million, Al Taawoun),
Major outs: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (free, Al Shabab), Bruno Uvini (free, Al Wakrah), Mohammed Fouzair ($500,000, Al Raed)
Key players: Brad Jones, Omar Hawsawi, Petros, Giuliano, Abderrazak Hamdallah
Did you know?: Hamdallah experienced the most-prolific scoring campaign in Saudi top-flight history (34 goals in 26 appearances) to inspire Nassr charge to last term’s title
2019/20 prediction: 2nd
The rarest of commodities – consistency – has become king at Nassr.
Smart spending (Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa exempted) and the ruthless mid-season arrival of a suave coach from Portugal combined in 2018/19 to end a four-year wait for SPL glory. Since ex-Benfica tactician Vitoria was joyously raised high in May, understandably, only cosmetic changes have been applied.
The foreign department has just been touched by the expiration of Brazil centre-back Uvini’s contract, knocking the count down to the regulated seven. Saudi Arabia forward Adam, 24, adds unpredictability, increased depth up top and an injection of ambition.
Vitoria’s sway ensured a pleasant pre-season in his homeland, prior to edging a rollercoaster 2019 AFC Champions League round-of-16 contest with the UAE’s Al Wahda. This triumph owed much to the esprit de corps instilled since the 49-year-old’s January arrival.
Usurped Hilal possess more talent, pound for pound. But the punishing goals of Hamdallah and Vitoria’s inspirational leadership guarantee another tense title fight.
2018/19 position: 2nd
Coach: Razvan Lucescu
Major ins: Jang Hyun-soo ($2.8m, FC Tokyo), Andre Carrillo ($10m, Benfica), Amiri Kurdi (undisclosed, Panionios), Saleh Al Shehri (loan, Al Raed)
Major outs: Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (free, Al Shabab), Achraf Bencharki (undisclosed, Zamalek), Ali Al Habsi (released), Omar Abdulrahman (free, Al Jazira), Milos Degenek (loan, Red Star Belgrade)
Key players: Yasser Al Shahrani, Salman Al Faraj, Salem Al Dawsari, Sebastian Giovinco, Bafetimbi Gomis
Did you know?: Hilal went through three coaches in 2018/19 (Jorge Jesus, Zoran Mamic and Pericles Chamusca) as they tried, in vain, to fend off neighbours Nassr
2019/20 prediction: 1st
Success is only ever measured in silverware at Hilal.
This is why a disorderly second half of 2018/19 sticks in the craw of demanding supporters. The Kingdom’s most-storied outfit was coasting towards a third-successive SPL title, until January’s split with legendary Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus soon sent them into an eminently avoidable tailspin.
A new board (helmed by youthful president Fahad bin Nafil Alotaibi) and new coach (PAOK miracle-worker Lucescu) are in-situ. Both know second place is utterly unacceptable and this creates its own unique pressures.
Gomis’ enduring prowess in front of goal was highlighted by a hat-trick in this month’s dominant ACL round-of-16 opener at Al Ahli Jeddah. The ex-Lyon and Galatasaray hit man leads a foreign contingent that still contains talisman Carlos Eduardo in spite of repeat links to the Arabian Gulf League and fully embedded Italy magician Giovinco, plus a switch at centre-back between Australia’s Degenek and former South Korea international Jang.
A temporary deal for 2018/19’s most-prolific citizen, 16-goal Raed striker Al Shehri, only adds to an imposing threat.
With influential Saudi Arabia midfielder Al Faraj finally in good shape after a fitful year, Hilal will take some stopping.
AL AHLI JEDDAH
2018/19 position: 4th
Coach: Branko Ivankovic
Major ins: Mohammed Al Khabrani ($2.1m, Al Qadsiah), Danijel Aleksic ($2.2m, Yeni Malatyaspor), Elvis Saric ($1.7m, Suwon Bluewings), Ervin Zukanovic ($2.2m, Genoa)
Major outs: Mohamed Abdel Shafy (free, Zamalek), Nicolae Stanciu ($6.7m, Slavia Prague), Claudio Baeza ($3.4m, Necaxa), Ayman Al Khulaif ($535,000, Al Wehda), Paulo Diaz ($4.5m, River Plate)
Key players: Mohammed Al Owais, Mohammed Al Fatil, Souza, Djaniny, Omar Al Somah
Did you know?: Centre forwards Al Somah (19) and Djaniny (20) contributed 55.9 per cent of Ahli’s 2018/19 top flight goals (38/68).
2019/20 prediction: 4th
Ahli have banked on another cultural reset guiding them back to the SPL’s upper echelons.
Little remains of 2018/19’s failed South American infusion. Coaches Pablo Guede and Jorge Fossati were culled during a campaign that never threatened a repeat of 2015/16’s unexpected supremacy, while Chile internationals Baeza and Diaz didn’t hang about either.
New Croatian tactician Ivankovic – poached from Iran’s Persepolis after four bountiful years – has swiftly injected an Eastern European influence after further extensive surgery on the seven-man foreign quota. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Saric and Zukanovic will man midfield, Serbia’s Aleksic linking the attack together.
A furore about prolific striker Al Somah apparently tossing his shirt, however, in the ACL round-of-16 elimination to Hilal could have long-lasting implications. So too the disquiet from an anaemic second leg when much more than the registered 1-0 victory was required.
Ahli – who went without SPL glory from 1984-2016 – perpetually long for good times. They seem, however, beyond their reach.
2018/19 position: 10th
Coach: Jose Luis Sierra
Major ins: Hamdan Al Shamrani ($3.2m, Al Faisaly), Abdulrahman Al Aboud ($3.2m, Ettifaq), Emiliano Vecchio (free, Santos), Luis Jimenez (free, CD Palestino), Haroune Camara ($5.9m, Al Qadsiah)
Major outs: Ahmed Assiri (Al Taawoun), Garry Rodrigues (loan, Fenerbahce), Jamal Bajandouh (free, Varazdin)
Key players: Fawaz Al Qarni, Al Shamrani, Manuel da Costa, Carlos Villanueva, Romarinho
Did you know?: Ittihad spent the first 26 rounds of a dire 2018/19 in the relegation places
2019/20 prediction: 6th
Things can only get better for Ittihad. Can’t they?
Last term, a fallen giant seriously threatened to plummet through the relegation trap door for the first time in their proud 92-year history. A slapdash scramble in both transfer markets (24 incomings, 34 outgoings) and not even the supposed talents of ex-West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic could save them, that is until they desperately turned back to previous incumbent Sierra in February.
The 2018 King’s Cup winner dragged a disparate bunch up to 10th, courtesy of six wins in a redemptive last nine SPL fixtures. Work on recruitment since, however, has awoken old worries – never mind a 2-0 friendly defeat at England’s non-league Atherton Collieries.
This month’s 6-4 aggregate ACL knockout win against Iran’s Zob Ahan also didn’t inspire confidence that old faults had been fixed.
Sierra’s trusted midfielders Emiliano Vecchio and Luis Jimenez do not inspire. The $5.9m spent on Saudi Arabia prospect Camara represents a risk; he netted just seven times in 29 outings during Qadsiah’s demotion.
But new left-back Al Shamrani is a star in the making. Full campaigns for Morocco centre-back Da Costa and Serbia striker Aleksandar Prijovic are a welcome bonus.
This iteration of Ittihad possess too much quality to be near relegation.
But overtaking all of Al Shabab, Al Taawoun and Al Wehda appears a stretch. Let alone catching up to Hilal and Nassr.
Al Taawoun put forward a strong case to eclipse SPL champions Nassr as the story of last season in Saudi.
The architect of their third-placed finish and historic King’s Cup triumph, Pedro Emanuel, however, has departed for the ubiquitous Turki Al Sheikh’s Almeria. Fellow Portuguese Paulo Sergio has seven of the same foreigners to pick from and they should be at the sharp end, once again.
Al Shabab’s smart hires of Danilo Asprilla and Cristian Guanca – lethal for lesser lights in 2018/19 – make them a graver proposition for the usual powers, while former starting Saudi centre forward Al Sahlawi will appreciate fresh opportunity. Al Wehda have taken a gamble on coach Mario Cvitanovic, though retaining lively winger Marcos Guiherme is essential.
Towards the usual mid-table contenders, a lack of distraction for Hilal’s loaned manager Chamusca boosts sixth-placed Al Faisaly. Excellent Ukraine shot stopper Maksym Koval provides continued security for Al Fateh.
Hilal’s swoop for Al Shehri critically undermines Al Raed’s preparations. Ettifaq have already been seriously weakened by a failure to make 14-goal Guanca’s loan move permanent.
Narrow margins kept Al Fayha and Al Hazem up. The latter have brought in ex-Boavista tactician Jorge Simao, while the latter keep faith in Romanian Daniel Isaila.
The promoted trio are either total, or relative, strangers to this level. Al Adalah have never played in the top flight, while Abha are back after a 10-year absence and Damac last featured in 1982.