Floundering Al Ahli Jeddah supremo Branko Ivankovic is expected to be imminently confirmed as the first managerial casualty of the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League, according to widespread reports.
Ivankovic, 65, witnessed his brief reign at King Abdullah Sports City plumb new depths on Saturday with a rancorous 2-1 home loss to Al Wehda. Condemnation reigned down from scarcely attended stands, with calls for change reaching fever pitch after only two miserable months in charge.
The defeat followed a season-opening 1-1 draw with top-flight debutants Al Adalah and a fortunate 2-1 triumph at Ettifaq. Elimination in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 was also recorded last month versus Al Hilal, the generous 4-3 aggregate scoreline owing much to the Riyadh side sitting back on their dominant first-leg advantage.
Further issues included a reportedly tempestuous relationship with star striker Omar Al Somah, plus unpropitious starts for foreign additions such as Serbia forward Danijel Aleksic – already sold to Istanbul Basaksehir – and Bosnia midfielder Elvis Saric.
Verification of Ivankovic’s departure will mean that Ahli are searching for their fifth permanent coach since the beginning of 2017/18.
Ukraine legend Serhiy Rebrov was sacked in April after the SPL crown was lost to Al Hilal by a single point and replaced by caretaker Fathi Al Jabal. Argentina’s Pablo Guede lasted from July 2018-February 2019 and Uruguay veteran Jorge Fossati endured an abysmal 68-day spell at the helm until April.
Ivankovic was then unable to replicate his success in Iran with giants Persepolis and has likely paid with his job.
Al Nassr will look to build on a slender advantage at Xavi’s Al Sadd and earn a debut AFC Champions League semi-final berth.
Abdulrahman Al Dawsari and the exceptional Guiliano notched last month in Riyadh when the Saudi Professional League holders – who have never got this far before in the current format – came back from behind to defeat the Qatar Stars League winners 2-1. This slender advantage means that a blockbuster second leg should be in store on Monday at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium.
REST OR WORK?
Contrasting preparations have been experienced by this pair of regional heavyweights.
The end of the international break saw Nassr thrust straight back into action on Friday for a fraught goalless draw versus neighbours Al Shabab.
But Sadd have been able to solely focus on this clash. The 2011 ACL winners – and only non-Saudis left in the west – have not played since August 31’s 7-1 dismantling of Al Shahania.
Extra time on the training pitch was also recorded with star attacker Akram Afif after an acrimonious recent stint with Qatar.
Will this work prove the difference for the rested hosts, or can the battle-ready visitors prevail?
HAMDALLAH’S TRICKY RETURN
It was not the return that record-breaking striker Abderrazak Hamdallah envisaged.
A yellow card for a fracas with belligerent Tunisia goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha was all he gained upon his comeback from August 22’s foot injury.
The Morocco striker was kept unusually quiet, registering one on-target attempt and one off-target attempt.
Hamdallah also missed the opener versus Sadd. But his pedigree in the QSL – where he netted 39 times in 37 games for El Jaish and Al Rayyan – should provide a terrorising presence, plus the promise of a cherished away goal.
Those expecting the Barcelona blueprint to be replicated by Xavi in his first managerial role have been left bemused.
The lionised midfielder initially favoured a 3-4-1-2 formation. His sizeable Qatar contingent’s comfort with the system, surely, influenced this choice.
The humiliation of Shahania, however, featured a ‘Barca-esque’ 4-3-3. With this tie so delicately poised, it will be intriguing to see which route the coaching novice goes down.
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.
📷 تدريبات "الليوث" مساء اليوم الأثنين pic.twitter.com/nuub9Y410X— نادي الشباب السعودي (@AlShababSaudiFC) September 9, 2019
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.