Ahead of a potential meeting between Saudi Arabian and Egyptian clubs in the final of the delayed 2020 Arab Club Championship (ACC), French coach Patrice Carteron has declared that the Saudi Pro League is the stronger of the two.
Carteron, who has extensive experience in Africa and the Middle East, is better placed than most to make such a claim. Now in charge of Al-Taawoun in central Saudi Arabia, the 50 year-old has also had the unusual honour of coaching the two giant clubs of Egypt, both Zamalek and Al-Ahly.
On Monday, Egyptian team Ismaily can reach the final of the ACC by defeating Raja Casablanca, another of Carteron’s former clubs, to face Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad. After a 1-0 victory over the Moroccan team in the first leg way back in February, Ismaily are in the driving seat to face Ittihad, winners back in 2005, though the date of the final has yet to be confirmed.
Whatever happens, Carteron believes that Saudi teams are currently in the ascendancy in the region. “The Saudi League is stronger and better than the Egyptian, and there is no room for comparison between them,” Carteron said on Thursday. The tactician pointed to the fact that Al-Ittihad defeated Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab in the last four as evidence. “The two Saudi teams that made it that far are not Al-Hilal or Al-Nassr, the best in the country.”
Carteron, who surprisingly resigned as head coach of Zamalek in September to be announced as new boss of Al-Taawoun just hours later, has a number of other reasons for his comments. “The presence of seven foreign players that each team can sign has raised the level of the competition in Saudi Arabia and there is also the presence of high-level coaches.”
The Saudi league may have quantity (Egypt’s clubs are limited to four foreign players) but there is no shortage of quality either. Carteron pointed to strikers such as former French international Bafetimbi Gomis at Al-Hilal, defeated finalist in the 2019 edition of the ACC, as evidence of the talent in the country. He also believes that Al-Ahli’s Syrian star Omar Al-Somah could play at the very highest level. “Al-Somah is a dangerous striker who could play in Europe for many years, and many Saudi players could play in Europe.”
Such talent helps to ensure that the Saudi Pro League games are competitive and unpredictable affairs, where players must be at their best or see mistakes punished. That was the case in Al-Taawoun’s last league game, a surprise 3-0 win away at second placed Al-Ahli.
“I am no longer surprised by any result that occurs in the league, and the most difficult matches are those when I feel that the players are not fully focused. My team’s weakness is a lack of experience and I try to develop it among the players,” he said. “I want them to have spirit and enthusiasm in every match.”
The impressive win in Jeddah means that spirits are high. After a disappointing season last time round, when Al-Taawoun had to fight to avoid relegation, Carteron has steered the team from Buraidah into sixth place, just two points off the top three with just two defeats so far this season.
The target is for the team that reached the knockout stages of the 2019-20 AFC Champions League in September to finish in the top three, and return to continental competition. Carteron is currently in his second spell in Saudi Arabia; his first came in charge of Al-Nassr in 2017 when, in a short six-month spell, he steered the Riyadh team to a third-place finish.
While Al-Taawoun may not have the spending power of Al-Nassr, the Frenchman, who tested positive for the coronavirus disease COVID-19 in October before recovering, is enjoying his second bite at the Saudi Pro League cherry after being able to spend quality time on the training pitch.
“The difference between my first and second experience in Saudi Arabia is that before, I went straight into games after I joined, but this time I had enough time to prepare the players after we finished playing in Asia,” said Carteron.