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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Herve Renard imprint from Saudi Arabia debut v Mali and other talking points

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(Twitter/@SaudiNT).

Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia reign got off to a low-key start with a 1-1 friendly draw against Mali.

The double Africa Cup of Nations champion required a second-half tap-in from Al Hilal winger Salem Al Dawsari to avoid a debut defeat at Dammam’s Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium on Thursday. Metz winger Adama Traore had curled in a 38th-minute opener that Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf should have done better with.

Here are the talking points from a clash that provided several hints about Tuesday’s opening World Cup 2022 qualifier against Yemen in Bahrain:

EARLY IMPRESSIONS

In the fullness of time, this run-out should mean little to Renard.

There was, however, things to glean about the Frenchman’s set-up and lessons to be learned by him about the options at hand.

The frantic side that turned into a pressing machine under predecessor Juan Antonio Pizzi was no more. A patient approach from a nominal 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation was instantly apparent, both in attack and defence.

Al Nassr’s Abdulrahman Al Dawsari had last week run Xavi’s Al Sadd into the ground as a box-to-box midfielder. The 21-year-old’s influence during a restrained second senior cap, however, was negligible.

An early charge into the penalty box by Yasser Al Shahrani almost created a goal for club-mate Salem Al Dawsari, whose shot on the turn fell narrowly wide. The demure 87 minutes that followed from the adventurous Hilal full-back ensured this promise wasn’t realised.

At the back, concern comes from Al Mayouf’s suspect technique and lack of chemistry between defenders Omar Hawsawi and Ali Al Bulaihi.

This stale affair made for a taxing watch. An issue, naturally, exacerbated by 2019 Asian Cup breakout Hattan Bahebri’s forced 33rd-minute removal.

Further mitigation came from their lack of preparation, temperature in the mid-30s Celsius and draining impact of the nascent Saudi Professional League/2019 AFC Champions League knockouts.

Renard will hope for much better in next week’s competitive bow. So, too, will the watching Saudi public.

A STRIKING FUTURE?

A forgettable home stalemate against Africa’s 11th-highest ranked nation by FIFA was not all negative.

The promising display of Al Shabab’s debutant teenage striker Abdullah Al Hamddan saw a long-term solution emerge to a long-lasting problem.

The AFC U-19 Championship winner was positioned as the fulcrum of the Green Falcons attack, despite drawing a blank across 10 SPL career appearances. There was no sign of rust from only 46 minutes of 2019/20 club action, either.

Renard, instead, witnessed polished link-up play. His deflected centre created Al Dawsari’s goal, while an earlier quick-fire double one-two with the same player almost produced a refined leveller at the near post.

Beyond Al Hamddan, a late run-out from $5.9 million Al Ittihad striker Haroune Camara featured some fancy footwork. Confidence clearly is not an issue for an erratic talent who merits perseverance.

Illness in the build-up also denied Nassr’s 19-year-old Firas Al Buraikan a first cap and possibility to build on last week’s match-winner at Al Fateh.

The banned Fahad Al Muwallad will be back to perform his ‘false 9’ duties when the third round begins. It would be healthy, though, to foster an alternative option in the interim.

TESTS OF TIME

Renard will be patently aware that time is on his side.

Palestine’s 2-0 victory against Uzbekistan in Group D exemplified the latter’s decline. Progression from top spot should be a procession for the World Cup 2018 qualifiers in a section that also contains lesser-lights Yemen and Singapore.

Steady development and acclimatisation, then, is key throughout the next year.

Thursday’s handing out of debuts to Al Hamddan, Ittihad midfielder Khaled Al Sumairi, and defensive club-mate Saud Abdulhamid meets this remit. Lively substitute Abdulaziz Al Bishi impressed, while affirmation came about Salem Al Dawsari’s growing importance as an attacking spark.

Renard also gained first-hand knowledge about the limitations of Al Mayouf and Al Bulaihi.

Expectations about Saudi Arabia are, eternally, sky high. They create pressure that can become insufferable – just ask Edgardo Bauza, Frank Rijkaard and Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Renard’s glory at the AFCON with minnows Zambia and giants Ivory Coast, plus returning Morocco to the World Cup after two decades away, has earned conviction about his methods. A mundane friendly against Mali should not detract from this reality.

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Saudi Arabia talking points ahead of Herve Renard debut against Mali

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(Twitter/@SaudiNT).

A new era begins in earnest for Asian giants Saudi Arabia on Thursday when esteemed coach Herve Renard kicks off his reign with a friendly against Mali.

The Green Falcons had been without a permanent boss since Juan Antonio Pizzi departed in the wake of January’s unsatisfactory round-of-16 exit at the Asian Cup. This decision to bide their time proved wise when the Frenchman resigned from Morocco in July.

Here are the talking points ahead of a first run-out at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium:

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Renard has arrived with a reputation as a master of international football in Africa.

This is what AFCON wins with minnows Zambia and heavyweights Ivory Coast, plus returning the Atlas Lions to the World Cup after a 20-year absence, will do for a tactician.

Now, comes a first taste of Asia. Lessons learned guiding Morocco’s Muslim players will help, although AFCON elimination in the round of 16 by unfancied Benin causes concern.

An injection of discipline by banning mobile phones in camp is reminiscent of Bert van Marwijk – and his revitalising reign ended with cherished World Cup 2018 qualification.

THE RIGHT BLEND

A first squad made an exciting first impression.

This mix of youth and experience contained six uncapped call-ups, another opportunity for electric Ettifaq winger Mohammed Al Kwikbi – overlooked for the World Cup and Asian Cup – and the timely return of refined Al Hilal centre midfielder Salman Al Faraj after long-term injury. With no obvious alternative present, the 30-year-old may have to fulfil the playmaker role favoured in Renard’s 4-2-3-1 system.

Players like Mohamed Kanno, Abdulrahman Al Dawsari and Hamdan Al Shamrani should transform into key cogs along the long road to World Cup 2022. Will they be unleashed against Mali, or held back?

YOUNG GUNS

It is the problem that won’t go away.

Al Ittihad’s Fahad Al Muwallad was only ever meant to be a stop-gap up front – and he’s now banned after a failed drugs test.

Renard, through necessity rather than design, has selected a trio of scoreless strikers who boast an average age under 20, two are uncapped and Ittihad’s Haroune Camara has just six.

Promise, however, is provided by Firas Al Buraikan netting the only goal for champions Al Nassr at Al Fateh last week.

Yemen will be swatted aside in Tuesday’s opening World Cup 2022 qualifier. But a premium option must emerge for the third round.

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