Saudi Professional League: Al Ahli await Youcef Belaili, sack race starts and other talking points

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The 2019/20 Saudi Professional League is back for round three this weekend after the international break.

Beyond the resumption of hostilities between champions Al Nassr and chasers Al Hilal, a number of intriguing storylines are emerging.

A domino effect could begin throughout the competition if disenchanted Damac dismiss coach Mohamed Kouki. 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner Youcef Belaili’s likely debut for Al Ahli Jeddah is eagerly anticipated, while much should be learned about the veracity of Al Shabab’s aspiration to gate-crash the title fight.

Here are the talking points:

WELCOMING A DESERT FOX

Ahli required a lift after their troubled start to 2019/20 – and they should learn on Saturday whether they have gained one.

In the wake of meek 2019 AFC Champions League round-of-16 elimination versus Hilal and a humiliating 1-1 opening-round draw, at home, against top-flight debutants Al Adalah, the board sprung into emergency action. Belaili was wrestled from Tunisia’s Esperance de Tunis, while Nantes were also raided for Brazilian left-back Lucas Lima.

An expansive skill set and supreme dribbling ability from the Algeria winger should add an air of unpredictability to a, thus far, staid side under Branko Ivankovic.

Averages per 2019 AFCON game of two dribbles, 2.7 fouls won and two key passes show why summer interest was also reported from Egypt’s Al Ahly, Turkey’s Galatasaray and France’s Marseille. These impressive statistics also kept then Porto winger Yacine Brahimi on the sidelines.

Ahli have been a difficult watch in the absence of such a creative conduit. Serbia forward Danijel Aleksic was bombed out to İstanbul Basaksehir after just three competitive appearances, while Bosnia & Herzegovina midfielder Elvis Saric is only showing flashes.

Their preceding 2-1 win at Ettifaq was attained by replacement Abdulrahman Ghareeb blocking Central African Republic centre-back Cedric Yambere’s delayed clearance. In the entire 90 minutes, they generated one ‘big chance’.

Great expectations will accompany Belaili’s, expected, bow against pointless Al Wehda. He must start meeting them, immediately.

DAMAC TO START SACK RACE?

Coaches across the Kingdom are rarely afforded opportunity to feel comfortable.

This capricious ‘hire-and-fire’ culture witnessed a colossal 22 separate managerial changes in 2018/19. Even Ramon Diaz’s reputation was no safeguard against this and he lasted until only September 15 at shock relegation candidates Al Ittihad.

Signs are already apparent that this timeline may be repeated.

Tunisia’s Kouki won promotion with Damac last term, but his employment hangs by a thread after 2-0 and 4-0 opening top-flight losses. Friday’s hosting of rebounding giants Ittihad could be his last engagement.

A ripple effect may then, conceivably, sweep up Wehda’s Mario Cvitanovic, Al Raed’s Besnik Hasi and Al Fateh’s Fathi Al Jabal. All are at the helm of teams with zero points.

Pressure may, also, soon come to bear on Al Taawoun’s Paulo Sergio. Compatriot Pedro Emanuel’s presence is still felt at last term’s surprise third-placed finishers and King’s Cup champions.

The immutable truth that you are only ever a handful of bad results away from the sack in Saudi remains.

ACID TEST FOR AL SHABAB HOPES

Faith in a three-way title scrap could be bolstered or broken this weekend.

Nassr and Hilal are considered a cut above in the Kingdom. If this duopoly is to be interrupted, however, it is mutual Riyadh neighbours Shabab who seem best poised.

A nascent chance to prove their strength comes on Nassr’s turf this Friday.

It is seven years since the White Lion roared its way to the SPL crown. Throughout the interim period, no serious assault on top spot has been launched.

Summer additions of prolific South American attackers Danilo Asprilla and Cristian Guanca add an attacking edge to 2018/19’s meanest defence. This immense rearguard has been further reinforced by the procurement of Senegal defensive midfielder Alfred N’Diaye from Villarreal.

So far, so good. Nassr, though, are expected to welcome back record-breaking striker Abderrazak Hamdallah from injury and have won 14 of 16 SPL matches under Rui Vitoria…

Shabab are in need of a serious statement of intent.

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