The start of the 2021-22 Saudi Professional League season is almost here and in the first of two parts we look at the main challengers for the title.
Last season: 1st. It was not the most dominant of Al-Hilal championships, but the team, going for a second straight title, showed their experience and know-how when the pressure was on.
The summer: Good — they always say that you should strengthen from a position of strength and that is what Al-Hilal seem to have done. Sebastian Giovinco has been a solid performer in his 30 months at the club before a reunion with Razvan Lucescu in Greece, but the hole left by the 34-year-old Italian will be more than filled by the 25 year-old Matteus Pereira. The Brazilian was always going to leave West Bromwich Albion after relegation, but it was expected he would stay in the English Premier League. His move to Riyadh should ensure that the supply to last season’s top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis and new striker Moussa Marega, who arrives from Porto, continues. Pereira also has the ability to find the net on a regular basis.
Coach: Leonardo Jardim. The arrival of the Portuguese boss is one of the most intriguing additions in the close season. He demonstrated that he can build a fine team against the odds while at Monaco, and he was right when he said that a French title with them was worth four with PSG. What can he do with the champions who are expected to win again? It will be a different situation.
Strengths: So many. Strength in depth, a solid spine, several of the best Saudi Arabian internationals and a goal threat from all over the pitch. There is a winning mentality at the club.
Weaknesses: More than any other club, Al-Hilal covets the AFC Champions League and, even with the strongest squad in the league, there is always a chance that the continental crown can provide a distraction. There may be a few tired players from the significant contingent that went to the Olympics just before the season started.
Prediction: Al-Hilal were the best team last season, and if the new coach clicks, could be considerably better. It is hard to see past a “three-peat.”
Last season: A disappointing sixth that, at one point, looked like it could have been a lot worse. The 2019 champions were still in the relegation zone as the season approached the halfway point. It ended the tenure of Rui Vitoria, and while Alen Horvat steadied the ship, he was replaced by former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. The campaign ended relatively well with the club climbing the table.
The summer: It looks pretty good despite the exit of consistent goalkeeper Brad Jones. The big-money signing last year of Pity Martinez made international headlines, but the Argentine struggled to make a difference and ended up with a serious injury. Talisca will step into the attacking midfield shoes, and if the Brazilian can reproduce his Chinese form, the fans will be delighted.
Abderrazzak Hamdallah has stayed, despite a few rumors to the contrary, and the Moroccan has been a steady goal-scorer. Bringing in Vincent Aboubakar should give Al-Nassr added firepower as the Cameroon international has scored consistently at a good level in Europe.
Jaloliddin Masharipov has returned from a loan spell, and the Uzbekistan winger has looked good in pre-season with Argentina’s Ramiro Funes Mori coming into defense from Villarreal. It all means that young Saudi striker Firas Al-Buraikan was never going to get much of a look-in, so off he went.
Coach: Mano Menezes. The pressure of taking over a big Saudi club will not faze someone who has been in charge of Brazil.
Strengths: The coach has already demonstrated that he can get a tune out of the team, surviving a tough AFC Champions League group thanks to some smart tactical decisions. After a full pre-season, there should be more fluency. There should be no shortage of goals this season given the addition of firepower.
Weaknesses: The departure of veteran goalkeeper Brad Jones leaves a hole. Off-field issues and boardroom politics have made their mark before and never seem that far from the surface. The issue of what to do about Pity Martinez could prove to be a distraction.
Prediction: It may be too much to jump from sixth to first, but if the new signings click under the new coach, Al-Nassr should at least be able to mount a genuine challenge.
Last season: 3rd. There was a slow start, with just one win from the first five games, but then the team got into gear. The arrival of Ahmed Hegazi, another West Bromwich Albion import, in October changed things, adding leadership and discipline at the back. The season ended on a high and Al-Ittihad were in the title race until the final couple of weeks.
The summer: Decent. The Tigers have kept most of their best players and signed Hegazi on a permanent deal to boot. There is no debate as to the biggest deal, however: The $12 million given to Sharjah in exchange for the services of Igor Coronado. The Brazilian inspired the team to the UAE title in 2019, a first triumph since the 20th century. Al-Ittihad have not been champions since 2009 and are looking to end their drought, too.
Coach: Fabio Carille. Since arriving in 2020, the Brazilian has slowly turned things around in Jeddah, and it could be that one of the best signings the club has made this summer is keeping the former Corinthians boss on the books when it looked as if he might be off.
Strengths: Al-Ittihad was solid at the back for much of the season, becoming increasingly hard to beat as the months went by. That should continue with the excellent Marcelo Grohe between the sticks, Hegazi marshalling the defense and Bruno Henrique in the middle. That spine is one of the best in the SPL and the addition of Coronado adds something extra going forward, with Fahad Al-Muwallad already one of the most exciting players in the league.
Weaknesses: Lack of goals last season cost the team, while an over-reliance on Romarinho made some of the attack play overly predictable.
Prediction: Al-Ittihad has improved since last season when they were not too far away, but other teams also appear better. There should be a title push, but fans will have to settle for that.