Saudi Professional League: AFC impact and early season Al Ahli pressure feature in talking points

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Rigours of the AFC Champions League, promising starts for the promoted sides and alleviating early season pressure at Al Ahli Jeddah all feature in talking points for round two of the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League.

There is no respite for top-flight champions Al Nassr and runners-up Al Hilal when the continental quarter-finalists – Al Ittihad have a bye because of Monday’s Arab Club Championship opener – return to domestic action. In normal circumstances they’d be heavy favourites against mid-table Al Fateh and Al Raed, yet the vagaries of early season fatigue add interest.

Elsewhere, a clash between new boys Al Adalah and Damac will provide a further showcase after they performed above expectations in the opening round. Fellow SPL fresh faces Abha are determined to inflict more frustration on Al Wehda.

There is also already disquiet in the air at Al Ahli Jeddah after a dismal start to the campaign. Coach Branko Ivankovic will fear the consequences of another stumble, at Ettifaq.

Here are the latest talking points:

ONE GAME AT A TIME

Focus in Saudi Arabia shifted towards Asian ambitions in midweek.

Tuesday’s scoreless Saudi Al Clasico between Ittihad and Hilal split the country in half, while Nassr put one foot in the semi-finals with a 2-1 home victory against Xavi’s Al Sadd of Qatar.

The communal goal is terminating the Kingdom’s interminable 14-year wait since the second of Ittihad’s successive crowns. But now come the short-term quotidian commitments of the SPL.

The disruptive effect of the ACL cannot be discounted. Hilal drew 1-1 at Al Wehda after their opening 2019 group game, plus devastatingly lost 5-0 and 2-0 to Al Taawoun in the King’s Cup semi-finals and SPL in the wake of April’s 1-0 victory against Iran’s Estaghlal.

Ittihad twice downed Nassr, in the King’s Cup’s last-four and top flight, after ACL games.

Measured rotation will be the key to preventing further upsets. Hilal’s Razvan Lucescu and Nassr’s Rui Vitoria will welcome the boost in the foreign contingent from the ACL’s restrictive four, to the SPL’s expansive seven.

Stalwart Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo, returning Syria forward Omar Khrbin (who notched a header last week in the 4-2 beating of Abha) and Spanish centre-back Alberto Botia come back into the picture for Hilal. Influential Saudi Arabia midfielder Salman Al Faraj will also welcome more minutes upon his return from yet another major injury, especially in the enforced absence of Abdullah Otayf.

Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa, Brazilian tyro Petros and countryman Maicon will be gratefully received by Nassr. But major interest will surround the participation, or not, of record-breaking Morocco centre forward Abderrazak Hamdallah after a foot problem caused him to miss Monday’s Sadd success.

NEW BOYS MAKING THEIR MARKS

Confidence abounds in the promoted ranks after the first round.

Al Adalah’s first taste of SPL action in their 35-year history was worth the wait. Substitute Aliou Cisse’s effort in the 87th minute earned an unforgettable 1-1 draw at Al Ahli.

Damac came away with a creditable 2-0 defeat at champions Nassr, while lively Tunisia attacking midfielder Saad Bguir was a thorn in Hilal’s side during an eventual 4-2 reversal for Abha.

A golden chance to earn an encouraging opening SPL win of the nascent campaign comes on Thursday when Adalah host Damac at Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium. This will be a poignant fixture for the hosts.

Their 2-0 triumph in this fixture on the final day of the 2018/19 Prince Mohammad bin Salman League season guaranteed their cherished promotion.

MS League champions Abha travel to a Wehda side reeling from last week’s deflating 2-0 loss to Ettifaq. They should aim to increase the pain.

AHLI’S EARLY ANGUISH

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Change has swept through Ahli since a moribund 2018/19.

It has, however, failed to lift the miserable and fractious mood at King Abdullah Sports City.

Veteran coach Branko Ivankovic has overseen a demoralising exit in the ACL’s round of 16 to Hilal, plus an embarrassing 1-1 draw to promoted opposition in the SPL.

An immediate announcement that summer buy Danijel Aleksic has been shown the exit door, with two new foreigners being swiftly drafted in, evidences the startling degree of panic. Sao Paulo left-back Reinaldo is an early contender to come in.

Saturday’s trip to Ettifaq already holds real significance. Another loss will make for an agonising two-week international break.

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