Early 2019/20 Saudi Professional League impressions of Al Hilal, Al Nassr and promoted clubs

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(Twitter/@Alhilal_FC).

September’s international break provides the Saudi Professional League clubs with an opportunity to pause and reflect on the early 2019/20 action.

A familiar feel at the top of the standings sees runners-up Al Hilal and holders Al Nassr ensconced in the top two. But the contrasting methods of how they have got there hints at the shape of the competition to come.

The promoted sides, meanwhile, have largely stood up well to the step-up in class, while early signs of trouble are visible at the likes of Al Faisaly and Al Wehda. New Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard will also be concerned by the continued lack of domestic scorers.

Here, we pick through the division’s opening rounds:

TALE AT THE TOP

The SPL is only two match-days old and already another all-Riyadh title fight appears inevitable.

Nassr and Hilal are the only teams in possession of a perfect six points, albeit with rebounding Al Ittihad missing out on the chance of a second-successive victory because of Arab Club Champions Cup involvement.

Interest can be derived from the disimiliar methods that have got the leading pair into a commanding position.

The steel beams injected into Nassr’s spine since Rui Vitoria’s January introduction remain firm as ever. Only they and Faisaly are yet to concede a goal, while not even enduring 2019 AFC Champions League commitments and injury to record-breaking goal scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah – forced off in the 71st minute of the opening 2-0 dispatching of promoted Damac – could force a slip-up at Al Fateh.

Cavalier Hilal have, in contrast, blown their way through their first matches. A tally of nine goals is more than double every other side, apart from impressive top-flight debutants Al Adalah on five.

Tellingly, it is triple Nassr’s three.

Coach Razvan Lucescu’s winning touch has, seemingly, travelled with him from Greece’s PAOK.

It is difficult see which other sides can compete with Nassr’s punishing practicality and Hilal’s offensive flourishes.

Al Ahli Jeddah were already one more bad result away from disaster, prior to Saturday’s late surge at Ettifaq. Al Shabab have not demonstrated significant ‘X-factor’, while Al Taawoun are still weathering the loss of inspirational boss Pedro Emanuel to Turki Al Sheikh’s Almeria.

KHRBIN’S IN FROM THE COLD

Omar Khrbin went from reigning AFC Player of the Year to forgotten man under Jorge Jesus.

Fast forward a year and he’s become the talisman of Lucescu’s new regime.

The man who finished 2018/19 on loan at Egypt’s Pyramids FC has shone in the 4-4-1-1 formation utilised by Hilal this term.

A header within six minutes of his re-introduction eased nerves during the opening 4-2 beating of promoted Abha. Thrust into the XI at sorry Al Raed, two goals and an assist followed in a dominant 5-0 win.

The profitable partnership with ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis and pressure his outstanding displays have put on Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco auger well for the future.

SAUDIS STRIKE OUT

Months of debate throughout 2018/19 centred on the increased size of the SPL’s foreign contingent and its knock-on effects – chiefly, a paucity of international-class Saudi strikers.

A minimal downsizing to seven from last term’s eight non-domestic players has, unsurprisingly, had little impact on this problem area.

Of the 32 separate goal scorers to date in 2019/20, only nine have been Saudis. None of this number have scored more than once.

Renard had no choice but to explore the youth ranks for this month’s debut Green Falcons selection.

The Frenchman will be cheered, nevertheless, by 19-year-old Firas Al Buraikan’s decisive winner for Nassr – in the absence of Hamdallah – at Ettifaq.

He will feel less positive about the erratic Haroune Camara. The 21-year-old has been granted just five minutes in all competitions since a $5.9 million switch to Ittihad from relegated Al Qadsiyah.

Shabab prospect Abdullah Al Hamddan, 19, is yet to even register a shot in 2019/20.

It is not all doom and gloom, however, for Renard ahead of September 10’s opening World Cup 2022 qualifier.

Influential midfielder Salman Al Faraj has excelled back in the Hilal ranks after injury. A surfeit of stellar options at full-back means even the excellent Mohammed Al Breik should not be missed.

PROMOTED POWER

A final word must go to the division’s new boys.

2018/19’s promoted sides, Al Wehda and Al Hazem, both opened with a pair of draws. Al Adalah and Abha bettered this tally in 2019/20.

Adalah’s first-ever taste of top-flight action has contained a fine 1-1 draw at Ahli and 4-0 humbling of fellow new boys Damac.

Left-back Abdullah Al Yousef, Senegalese centre midfielder Aliou Cisse and Gabon warrior Medwin Biteghe have added much, already, to the competition.

Prince Mohammad bin Salman League champions Abha unnerved Hilal and defeated Wehda, with Tunisia attacking midfielder Saad Bguir a constant threat.

Even pointless Damac competed well at holders Nassr in the opening round, before folding versus Adalah.

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