Saudi Professional League: It's tight at the top, but can Al Faisaly hold on?

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Al Faisaly (EPA).

The international distractions are gone and the Saudi Professional League is back for a defining stretch of matches.

Fixture planners were forced into a late reshuffle for rounds 11 and 12 when a second invitation was accepted for the 24th Gulf Cup in Qatar. This necessitated a three-week adjournment, for a competition Saudi Arabia would suffer an inglorious 1-0 defeat in Sunday’s showpiece to first-time winners Bahrain.

There is also, again, no Al Hilal. The AFC Champions League victors’ pursuit of further silverware has turned global with the 2019 Club World Cup.

This should not, however, detract from a feast of intriguing storylines for the domestic fixtures ahead in the Middle East’s premier top-flight:

THE BIG PICTURE

Renewed competitiveness appears to be the emerging theme for 2019/20.

A scan of the standings sees established heavyweights Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ahli Jeddah on 20 points, albeit with the first mentioned accruing two games in hand once this weekend’s SPL fixtures are fulfilled. So far, so unsurprising; we are talking about the last three clubs to be crowned champions.

Underneath them, however, a trio of outfits still remain in the mix. Not since Al Fateh’s uproarious charge to the 2012/13 crown has the promise been so rich about long-term rubbernecking at the summit.

Al Taawoun have built on 2018/19’s third-placed finish and will feel justifiably confident about earning a fourth-successive SPL win when they travel to holders Nassr on Friday.

Daniel Carreno upset former employers Nassr last time out. The Uruguayan will fancy another momentum-building victory when his Al Wehda welcome third-bottom Al Adalah.

Below this bunch, Al Faisaly can still be found. But for how much longer?

FAISALY FIGHT TO STOP DREADED HAT-TRICK

Faisaly dropped back down to Earth last month, with a shuddering bump.

Pericles Chamusca’s men hit the heights of second in October. Twin losses to Nassr and Ahli were predictable, but nevertheless deflating.

The Brazilian – who ended last term on loan, in an unusual arrangement, at Hilal – faces a third-successive giant. Can they now chop Al Ittihad down to size?

The statistics paint a picture, however, of a club finding its level.

They only boast the SPL’s 10th-best expected goals (xG) of 12.5, according to Wyscout.com, and five players top their SPL scoring chart on a paltry two. This is not unfamiliar territory for 2018/19’s sixth-placed finishers, for whom Rogerinho led the way with just eight strikes.

Such margins mean points will only follow when they better a recent record of just one clean sheet in their last four top-flight run-outs. Ittihad’s four-match winning streak, in all competitions, under new boss Henk ten Cate does not offer confidence.

SHABAB’S FRESH START

A final word for the often-impatient SPL administrations.

Breaks in place are uncertain times for coaches. Only Al Shabab’s Jorge Almiron, though, was dismissed in the break.

This seventh change in 2019/20 can’t be classed as unexpected in the wake of two SPL losses and King’s Cup elimination to Al Fayha.

Candidates for the eighth removal include Ettifaq’s Khaled Al Atwi – the SPL’s sole permanent Saudi boss – and even Al Hazem’s Daniel Isaila. Both require uplifting results upon the resumption.

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